utorak, 4. prosinca 2012.

Lizok's Books - blog za (uglavnom) suvremenu rusku književnost

Ruska književnost i dalje je izvrsna ali iz prijevoda o tome samo naslućujemo. Znamo za Sorokina i Pelevina ali navodno je Mihail Šiškin trenutno najjače ime (tko zna ruski može čitati njegove romane ovdje i ovdje). Evo bloga koji barem neizravno može popuniti neke rupe.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

2012 Big Book Awards

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City

Reading Dmitrii Danilov’s latest book, Описание города (Description of a City) was a big, huge literary relief: after enjoying his spare but detailed Horizontal Position and “Black and Green” very much, I’d wondered what he would (or possibly could!) do next. My hope—selfish, of course—was that he would continue writing prose that is impersonal and I-less, but deeply personal... and, somehow, expand into another dimension. Which is exactly what Danilov does, in Description of a City, a book that is both very touching and quietly funny, a book that describes—and, really, defines—a city he visits once a month for a year. Beginning in January.

The narrator in Description of a City catalogues his goals on the first page. A summary: walk around, ride around, look around, stay in hotels, buy things, go from end to end many times, walk the central street and other streets a million times, make the place feel native so it gets under the skin. The city was chosen for its railroad connections and relatively short distance from Moscow (six hours by train), sports teams, wealth of industry, and dearth of tourist attractions. We learn that it’s essentially flyover country: the city’s airport doesn’t have many flights and the narrator sees planes flying overhead.
But my description of Description is off. Danilov uses terms like these, which I’ll translate very literally:
  • описаемый город –city being described
  • гостиница, название которой совпадает с названием одного из областных центров Украины – hotel the name of which coincides with the name of one of the regional centers of Ukraine
  • улица, названная в честь одного из месяцев – street named in honor of one of the months
  • площадь имени одного из величайших злодеев в мировой истории – [city] square named for one of the greatest villains in world history
Part of what makes this nomenclature work is that the place names start to pile up when the narrator goes from one train station to another, crosses a certain street, or sees a certain building. This sometimes creates absurdly long lists of names-that-don’t-name that might not seem to mean much. But they become names for us, Description’s readers, and they do have meaning—a lot of very marked meaning—even for a foreigner. I know, for example, the habit of naming hotels after other cities from the FSU, I know there are lots of Russian streets named after October, and I know Lenin and Marx are still pretty popular on Russian maps.
The cumulative effect of all those names-that-aren’t-names surprised me. Not only did I create a vivid mental picture of an imaginary city that drew on all my travel—in the years I lived in Russia I went to lots of small cities not unlike Danilov’s—but the city being described began to feel like a mythical, almost mystical place thanks to all the descriptions of names that draw on Soviet-era figures and clichés. Danilov has been called a new realist but his realism is a very particular and peculiar realism. His realism is abstract and almost transcendent, a realism with a lot of остранение, defamiliarization.
Danilov discusses words in other ways throughout the book, asking, for example, about the use of the word ритуальный (ritual) instead of похоронный (burial) when discussing funeral services. I’ve always thought this was strange, too. Also: can a wooden square that is obviously intended for use as a sandbox be called a “sandbox” if it contains no sand? And he wonders, throughout the book, about the expression “войти в печенки,” something the city being described should do to him, though he doesn’t quite grasp the expression. I don’t quite grasp the expression, either: literally it’s apparently “get into your livers” (!) and the Oxford Russian-English dictionary has the translation “to plague (someone)” for when something is, in Russian, in your livers. To me it feels a lot like “get under the skin.” In any case, at the very end of the book Danilov wraps things up nicely, saying there’s no longer any sense in talking about getting into livers. “Надо назвать вещи своими именами,” he says. Meaning his narrator is feeling compelled to call things by their true names so ‘fesses up: I don’t think it gives away anything at all to add that he says he has come to love that city… and of course the confession doubles as the narrator’s explanation of the livers expression.
So, yes, Description of a City got under my skin and into my livers, too, thanks to Danilov’s wonderful pile-ups of names that sometimes feel poetic, hours spent sitting on benches at train stations, on seats of buses, on seats at stadiums. The contrast of movement and transportation with open expanses and a meditative state I’ve come to expect from Danilov is also lovely. Most of all, though, I appreciate how Danilov uses language to deconstruct urban naming and describe a city that readers can build—one generic, clichéd name or building at a time—into imagined cities that draw on memories of real places and Soviet myths his readers already know. It’s quite a nice trick.
The train station known as
City Being Described-1. 
P.S. In case anyone wonders what city served as the model for the city being described, it’s Bryansk, something Danilov told me before I read the book, though I decided not to look at photos until finishing my reading. One reason Danilov chose Bryansk: his tremendous respect for Leonid Dobychin, a writer who lived in Bryansk. Of course Dobychin isn’t mentioned by name—he’s “выдающийся русский писатель” (an eminent Russian writer)—but Description of a City mentions monthly visits to the empty lot where Dobychin’s house once stood. It is, writes Danilov, on a street named in honor of one of the months, though the month is neither January or February. As I said, the book got into my livers.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

City/Country: Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager

Andrei Dmitriev’s Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), which won the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” Yasnaya Polyana award last month and is also on the short lists for this year’s Big Book and Russian Booker prizes, is a novel composed of two intersecting character sketches. Dmitriev draws his two title characters in great detail: middle-aged Paniukov, an Afghan war veteran who lives in a Russian village, and teen aged Gera, a Muscovite who comes to stay with Paniukov to avoid military service. They are brought together by Vova, an old friend and former farming partner of Paniukov’s who now lives in Moscow.

Though I didn’t count pages or scenes, it felt to me that Dmitriev offered more backstory for the men—often about their not-so-happening relationships with women—than present-day interaction. In the beginning of the book, Paniukov still thinks about his youthful romance with Sanya, whom he sees around town, and Gera is madly in love with Tatiana, who’s in Moscow and difficult to reach by cell phone. There’s no cell signal in the village—this is my kind of place!—so he has to travel to call her. I didn’t find much of interest in either romantic plot line, both of which take up lots of pages, rehashing stories of love and loss that I’ve heard, read, and witnessed elsewhere. I didn’t find much of interest in the interactions between Paniukov and Gera, either; Dmitriev didn’t develop their differences as much as I’d expected.
Still, I never thought about abandoning the book. The Peasant and the Teenager is readable thanks to Dmitriev’s writing and his ability to create texture in the settings and secondary characters—including a cow—that surround Paniukov and Gera. The texture doesn’t always feel very new to me, either, but Dmitriev combines elements to create atmosphere, particularly in the village, that feels real, if only in a schematic way. He gives us villagers who speak only in the informal you (ты) to emphasize closeness, English-influenced slang and poor spelling, a contrast of urban and rural bathhouses, walks that don’t quite go into the woods, illegal wood cutting, and a group of hunters who stay with Paniukov and Gera. As the designated drinker of the pair (Paniukov is a teetotaler), Gera has vodka with the hunters, revealing himself a buzzkill by talking too much about Suvorov. Dmitriev also has Paniukov tell stories of unpleasant village fates: they begin to feel identical and dull to Gera, who’s been through a bit himself because his brother is a drug addict abandoned by his family.
I came away from The Peasant and the Teenager with mixed feelings. On the minus side, the novel felt a bit awkward—not quite finished (or connected?) and not quite the right length—and I prefer a book with more conflict between characters. Dmitriev raised expectations that he’d reveal more about Paniukov and Gera than their been-there-read-that love stories could show. On the positive side, all the details I described above made this medium-length book perfectly pleasant to read, particularly given supporting characters like Lika, who changes her hair color to stave off boredom, and Paniukov’s expressive cow. I give Dmitriev extra credit for the cow, who became my favorite character: it’s a rare book where I want to read more about a cow who’s at the center of everything in a place without a cell signal.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

NOSE Finalists, 2012-2013

The NOSE Award named its [somewhat curious] list of finalists last week… here they are listed in Russian alphabetical order: 

  • Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina: Маленький человек (A Little Man), “a social novel with a detective [novel] plot,” according to the publisher’s description on Ozon.ru. Update on November 17, 2012: This book was also shortlisted for the 2012 Debut Prize for long fiction.
  • Lora Beloivan: Карбид и амброзия (Carbide and Ambrosia), a short story collection.
  • Sergei Gandlevskii: Бездумное былое (something like Feckless Bygone Days, though I almost missed the д and made this into Insane Bygone Days, an easier title to deal with, really…), a memoir about everything from family history to political protest in 2011.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili: Захват Московии (The Capture of Muscovy), a novel that a couple friends have enjoyed, though one said it’s not nearly as good as The Devil’s Wheel… then again, Gigolashvili set ridiculously high standards for himself with The Devil’s Wheel and The Interpreter.
  • Georgii Davydov: Крысолов (The Rat Catcher), a novel that’s also on this year’s Booker short list.
  • Nikolai Kononov: Бог без машины. История 20 сумасшедших, сделавших в России бизнес с нуля (God Without a Machine [or, heaven forbid, God Without a Car?]. The History of 20 Crazy People Starting Businesses in Russia from Nothing), nonfiction where the second part of the title seems to explain a lot more than the first. At least to me.
  • Aleksei Motorov: Юные годы медбрата Паровозова (Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years), an autobiographical novel that Ozon readers have loved. This one sounds like very decent mainstream.
  • Oleg Rashidov: Сколково. Принуждение к чуду (Skolkovo. Necessity for a Miracle), another business-themed book, this one about the Skolkovo Innovation Centre.
  • Lev Rubinshtein: Знаки внимания (Signs of Attention), a collection of columns from various publications and various years.
There’s a lot of nonfiction in that list but, as of this writing, fiction leads the online voting: Male Nurse Parovozov is first with 559 votes, followed by The Rat Catcher with 408 and Carbide and Ambrosia with 273.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Marina Stepnova’s Lazar Lindt and All His Women

Marina Stepnova’s Женщины Лазаря (Lazar’s Women) is one of “those” books: in this case, “those” books are the ones that compel me just a touch more than they repel me. Oddly, for this reader, “those” books have a tendency to be novels where form and content are absolutely inseparable (a big plus) and books that inexplicably leave me with painfully unforgettable scenes and atmospheres (an even bigger plus).

Moving on to the specifics…
Lazar’s Women, which is billed as a family saga, begins in the early twentieth century and continues to the present. And, yes, it truly is a family saga: each of the women—Marusya, Galina Petrovna, and Lidochka—that the title encompasses occupies, with some overlap, a specific historical period, and each (sort of) has her own place in the life of one Lazar Lindt. In my reading, Lindt is almost an incidental character, first feeling unrequited love for Marusya (his mentor’s wife) because of her welcoming home, then marrying the all-too-young Galina Petrovna and cosseting her in Soviet-era ways, and finally serving as a mythical figure in the life of his granddaughter, Lidochka, whose mother drowns in the book’s first chapter, leaving her to be raised by Galina Petrovna, now a rather cold widow.
The plot summary sounds pretty typical and trite, even (or particularly?) when you add in Lazar’s role as a mathematician who works on a bomb—Lazar is a creator and a destroyer all rolled into one, living in a remote scientist city with the mathematical-sounding name Ensk—so it’s Stepnova’s treatment of her material that gives the book its interest. I read the first hundred or so pages of Lazar’s Women thinking (as I still do) the novel is overwritten, overloaded, and overwrought… but then I grasped the book’s logic and began reading it as an allegorical, abstract representation of history, love, nonlove, and the effects of Soviet life on the psyche that demands all Stepnova’s literary “stuff.”
In her review for Izvestia, Liza Novikova likened Lazar’s Women to books by Liudmila Ulitskaya and Dina Rubina—and I completely agree with Novikova, who cites themes and devices that Stepnova handles differently, almost rebuking her schoolmarmish elders—but I found myself thinking even more of Vasily Aksyonov’s trilogy that’s known as Generations of Winter in English and Московская сага (Moscow Saga) in Russian. I disliked, almost intensely, the trilogy but couldn’t put it down. And I still can’t forget Aksyonov’s portrayals of the Soviet era’s perversion of life and love. Lazar’s Women had a similar effect on me, partly because it also dissects various types of perversion, but I think Stepnova’s book is better composed—compiled might be an even better word—than Aksyonov’s. For one thing, Stepnova uses her magpie techniques to offer all manner of tchotchkes, emotions, and accessories but Aksyonov uses his in what I consider a cheaper way, stuffing in cameo roles for historical figures, including Stalin. Stepnova’s book is also far more affecting in its affectedness: the book is even something of a tearjerker in spots. I fogged up more than once, and one male reader told me he cried.
I think critic Viktor Toporov’s description of Lazar’s Women as высокое чтиво is perfect: my English-language version of that would be “high-class pulp” because I read Lazar’s Women as a piece of very readable postmodernism that offers traditional alongside trashy. Stepnova combines elements and specifics like high class Soviet-era privileges, low-class words related to the body, a bathroom scene involving a smoking ballerina, the flexible saga genre, and a first-person narrator with an identity and a very distinctive voice but only (apparently) a cryptically tangential presence to the actual story.
Early in the book, though, that narrator tells doubting readers to check Yandex, a Russian search engine, if s/he doesn’t believe the facts in one part of the novel. Zakhar Prilepin criticizes the mention of Yandex in his review (which I read in Prilepin’s Книгочет), but I think he’s reading too literally and missing the point. Prilepin says (in my translation), “People write books about what Yandex doesn’t know and will never know,” adding that it doesn’t matter if we believe (my italics) what’s in a book or not. Okay, sure, fiction addresses mysteries of life that a search engine’s algorithms can’t grasp. I found the Yandex advice a bit puzzling at first but the further I read Lazar’s Women, the more I read the mention of Yandex as a a mysterious narrator’s reminder of the hierarchies and interdependencies of fact and fiction… that isn’t so far off from the novel’s portrayals of hierarchies within Soviet and post-Soviet society, which Stepnova inserts into a work of fiction that manages to feel simultaneously historical and anti-historical.
So, yes, Lazar’s Women irritated the hell out of me with its diminutives, barfing, and ballet. And, no, it’s not a gentle or genteel family saga. But that’s probably why the book works so well, why it feels a little unusual and important, and why it’s been shortlisted for this year’s NatsBest, Yasnaya Polyana, Big Book, and Russian Booker awards. It didn’t win the first two, and I haven’t read all the Big Book and Booker finalists, but Lazar’s Women is a very good book, a book I can’t help but respect—IMHO, respect > liking, when it comes to books—so I’d be more than happy if Stepnova won either award.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ergali Ger’s Koma & the Long NOSE List

Two items this week: quick thoughts on Ergali Ger’s novella Koma (Coma) and then an abridged version of the NOSE award’s 2012 long list…

First, Koma/Coma: I think it’s safe to say that Koma falls into the category of чернуха (chernukha), that wrenchingly crushing naturalism I’ve mentioned so many times before: Ger tells the story of Komera (“Koma”) Protasova, a retired woman who loses everything when she joins a church. Like most of the other chernukha I’ve read, Koma feels painfully—for both better and worse—obvious because the reader senses impending doom. From Koma’s name, with its references to communism and mental incapacity, to the mysterious Teacher of Koma’s church who asks members to hand over their apartments so they can all eventually live in a church-built complex, it was clear Koma’s retirement years would be anything but utopian, communitarian, or golden.
Yes, Koma is obvious but it is quality chernukha—it was a finalist for the 2009 Belkin award and the title work of a collection shortlisted for the 2011 Yasnaya Polyana award—and Ger tells his story logically, building suspense as he shows how Koma’s life implodes. He also works in historical details like the default of summer 1998; no comfort there. Koma reminded me of Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs, another chernukha piece that builds methodically, almost ploddingly, as it chronicles a family’s downfall. Though Koma is well-composed and suspenseful in its hair-pulling chernukha way (“What other tragedy could possibly befall these people?”), I certainly see why some (okay, even many) readers wouldn’t want to relive the darker sides of ‘90s memories via fiction about religious and housing crises. I thought Koma was absorbing but it didn’t show me much I didn’t already know... plus the experience of reading the book felt a little too reminiscent of watching a predictable haunted house movie (not a favorite genre) where the viewer wants to shout, “Don’t open that door!”
The Mikhail Prokhorov Fund’s NOSE Award Long List is the fun part this week: This grab bag of a long list contains 27 books—fiction, poetry, and nonfiction—so I won’t name them all, though I’ll mention the several I’ve read plus the books that are on my shelves. Then I’ll list all (I hope!) the other fiction…
First, the ones I’ve read, at least in part: I read and thoroughly enjoyed Alexander Ilichevsky’s Анархисты (The Anarchists) (previous post) but couldn’t wend my way through Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise Or the Way to the Glacier), a book that’s already been shortlisted for the NatsBest and Big Book and longlisted for the Booker; alas, Nosov just couldn’t make a guy chatting with his herniated disc work for me. Books already on the shelves are: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Захват Московии (The Capture of Muscovy), which a couple friends have enjoyed; Dmitrii Danilov’s Описание города (Description of a City), which I’m looking forward to; and Alexander Terekhov’s Немцы ([The?] Germans), which already won this year’s NatsBest. Three other familiar titles: Eduard Limonov’s В Сырах (In Syry) and Georgii Davydov’s Крысолов (The Rat Catcher) were both longlisted for the 2012 Russian Booker, and Vladimir Lidskii’s Русский садизм (Russian Sadism) was on the 2012 NatsBest short list.
The NOSE list contains a fair bit of nonfiction—based on quick glances, it looks like one book’s about Pelevin, another is about Russian business, plus there are essays and poems from writers like Gleb Shulpyakov, Sasha Sokolov, German Sadulaev, and Lev Rubinshtein…—but there are a few more novels. We have: Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina’s Маленький человек (A Small Man), Alla Bossart’s Холера (Cholera), Veronika Kungurtseva’s Орина дома и в Потусторонье (Orina at Home and On the Other Side), Iurii Mamleev’s После конца (After the End), Dima Klein’s Двойник Президента (The President’s Double), and Aleksei Motorov’s Юные годы медбрата Паровозова (Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years), an autobiographical novel I noticed several times in Moscow. It seems to have quite a following. The NOSE list also includes Lora Beloivan’s story collection, Карбид и амброзия (Carbide and Ambrosia).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

When Chickens Fly: Lipskerov’s The Forty Years of Changzhuoe

It feels appropriate that I bought my copy of Dmitrii Lipskerov’s 40 лет Чанчжоэ (The Forty Years of Changzhuoe) at my local Russian grocery store: I didn’t buy chicken that day but the book chronicles the strange life of a town invaded by a horde of chickens. Still, though the residents of Changzhuoe—the name apparently means “Chicken City”—find ways to capitalize on the arrival of millions of birds and many people develop feathers, The Forty Years of Changzhuoe is less about birds and feathers then about upside-down worlds and, to borrow from one of the book’s characters, “обыкновенный атавизм,” which I think I might call “normal atavism” here. It’s a diagnosis of sorts.

Though The Forty Years of Changzhuoe chronicles the city’s forty-year history (and, by many accounts, borrows from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose Hundred Years of Solitude are but a vague, distant memory for me…), it’s difficult to pinpoint its temporal setting in our parallel world. The novel apparently takes place before the Russian revolution, though the passage of time is often distorted in the town’s history, which is typed in code by a character named Elena who works in a trance-like state. Her husband, Genrikh Shaller, an officer who’s not really an officer, brings the text to one Mr. Teplyi (Mr. Warm, who’s anything but warm), a teacher at the local orphanage, for deciphering. One of Mr. Teplyi’s students is Jerome, a character who helps connect several of the book’s threads, largely because he’s a nosy young voyeur.
Lipskerov populates his town with lots more characters, including Liza and Françoise, who are two of Shaller’s lovers, a physicist named Gogol, a doctor on the make, and a set of bickering town council members. There’s also a businessman who decides to build a Babel-like tower of happiness. For me, what’s most interesting about all these figures is the way Lipskerov twists myth and literary expectations. [Spoiler alert!] For example, in Changzhuoe, unlike in Nikolai Karamzin’s sentimental classic, “Poor Liza,” Liza doesn’t do herself in because she’s distraught—growing chicken feathers doesn’t push her to suicide—it’s her beau, the businessman with the tower, who kills himself by diving off the structure in front of a crowd.
Physical and metaphorical flights are a theme in the book, too, so a physicist named Gogol feels doubly mischievous, particularly since Nikolai Gogol’s nose-in-the-bread caper (among others), defies our world’s laws of physics. And then there’s the cannibalistic Mr. Teplyi, who keeps a gruesome library and kills because it helps him decode Elena’s text. Teplyi feels like a twist on Dostoevsky, particularly when he tells Shaller that the presence of a hatchet doesn’t necessarily indicate a killer.
Reading Olga Slavnikova’s 1997 piece about Changzhuoe in the journal Ural reminded me of numerous other aspects of this crowded novel that I’d either forgotten or downplayed as I read. I was glad for her mention of characters’ propensity to forget their pasts and take on new names, and Slavnikova notes the laic canonization of people whose sins are forgiven, calling Changzhuoe’s saints folkloric characters. This form of dvoeverie, or dual belief, fits nicely with the (many!) carnivalistic elements I found in the book. Slavnikova also points out the erasure of one key character’s character… in fact, most of the town erases itself, returning the place to the same status (essentially a hole in the ground) it had at the beginning of the chronicle.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of Changzhuoe is that it’s not nearly as confusing or messy to read as it is to summarize. Even better, it’s a fairly enjoyable piece of work that combines eroticism, murder, magical realism, and, of course, atavism (usual or otherwise) and strange cycles of history. The book and its characters are certainly quirky, combining old-fashioned and modern, so I give Lipskerov lots of credit for placing most of his book—a debut novel—on the dark side of quirky rather than succumbing to cuteness. I can only imagine what some other writers might have done with all those feathers.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

All Sorts of Shorts: Short Stories from Noir and Snegirev + Two Short Summaries

After calling the Moscow Noir short story anthology “a dark book indeed” two years ago, I think I can sum up St. Petersburg Noir, a new collection edited by Julia Goumen and Natalia Smirnova for Akashic’s noir anthology series, as “a pretty dark book.” Put another way: If Moscow is pitch black, St. Peterburg is moving toward deep dusk.
I loved the brutal, elemental scariness of the Moscow book—and recognize how very skewed my perspective is after living and working near all too many Moscow crime scenes—but wonder if the slightly lighter St. Petersburg collection, which is very decent, might find a broader readership.
Bits of St. Petersburg Noir’s stories blended together in my mind as I read, melding into a composite portrait of a city loaded with poverty, aimlessness, drugs, back streets, squalid apartments, ballet, and canals… plus murder and other violent misdeeds set amidst cultural sites and monuments. Here are a few stories that especially distinguished themselves for me:
Andrei Rubanov’s “Barely a Drop,” translated by Marian Schwartz, felt the most classically noir to me, focusing on a writer who takes the train to St. Petersburg to spy on his wife, whom he suspects of having an affair. Rubanov is an economical writer who can fit a lot into a short story.
The first story in the book, Andrei Kivinov’s “Training Day,” translated by Polly Gannon, looks at law enforcement, morgue runs, and everyday fears (e.g. elevators, one of my own Russia phobias) with an apt combination of seaminess and humor.
“The Sixth of June,” by Sergei Nosov and translated by Gannon, stars a first-person narrator who quickly introduces himself as a would-be assassin with plans to act on Pushkin’s birthday.
I thought Julia Belomlinsky’s “The Phantom of the Opera Forever,” translated by Ronald Meyer, a revenge tale, was one of the edgiest stories in the book. It begins with a small chunk of Crime and Punishment and moves on to “All our life here—it’s a fucking Dostoevsky nightmare!”
Though Pavel Krusanov’s “The Hairy Sutra,” translated by Amy Pieterse, felt silly and predictable with its museum zoologists, conflicts, and specimens, it turned out to be one of the most oddly memorable stories in the book because of its distinct setting, characters, and exhibits.
Still, the scariest and darkest story I’ve read lately is in the thick journal Новый мир: Alexander Snegirev’s “Внутренний враг” (“The Internal Enemy”). Snegirev’s story is rooted in sociopolitical and historical tension: a young man, Misha, gets a call about an inheritance and then finds out his family history isn’t quite what he thought. Snegirev plays on Misha’s idealism, identity, and dread of the KGB as he builds a creepy, phantasmagoric family drama set in a house that feels haunted. The story’s psychological suspense and intensity surprised me—and sucked me in—after some early passages that felt a bit conventional. 
Finally, two novels I don’t plan to finish but that I want to mention because they’re both finalists for the 2012 Big Book Award: The first 140 pages of Vladimir Makanin’s Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky) also center around societal divides and the KGB as Makanin examines the consequences of informing. Alas, the novel, which draws on Chekhovian themes and reads almost like a play, didn’t hold my interest and I stopped reading after the first act section. I also had trouble with Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise Or the Way to the Glacier): eavesdropping on a guy who chats with his herniated disc just isn’t my thing. There’s more to the book than that, of course, including a Russia-India contrast, leeches, a stolen lung, and smoking cessation courses, but the whole package felt gimmicky, contrived, and surprisingly dull. Françoise was also shortlisted for the 2012 NatsBest.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Two Teas: Dmitry Danilov’s “Black and Green”

I’m glad Zakhar Prilepin’s list of favorite books and stories from the noughties reminded me that I had Dmitry Danilov’s Чёрный и зелёный (“Black and Green”) on my e-reader—Danilov’s novella about the wanderings of a tea salesman was fun to read, a lovely example of form and content intertwined. I enjoyed Danilov’s Horizontal Position very much, too (previous post), but “Black and Green” somehow felt even better, more homey… I’d like to think it’s all the tea, though I suspect I just feel even more at home now in Danilov’s world, finding humor and humanness in a place that initially felt bland and sketched but now feels full and almost cozy in its spareness.

Danilov tells “Black and Green” in a first-person voice that resembles the narrative voice of Horizontal Position: the anonymous storyteller of “Black and Green” uses clipped, stripped language, too, offering minute detail about what he sees in his travels and work but saying little about his background or the family he needs to feed. Though the bulk of “Black and Green” describes tea-selling trips to places outside Moscow, Danilov begins his story by describing a dull night job in an office, then an attempt to sell books and postcards to bookstores. It’s futile in the summer. Come back later. Okay.
It’s difficult to convey the strange pleasure of reading “Black and Green.” In terms of detail, the descriptions of tea and towns are wonderful, particularly if you are a tea drinker and/or have been to Russia, but I think this bit, about the narrator’s tea trips with a car owner, Sasha, gets at the essence of what I love so much about how Danilov writes:
Стали ездить с Сашей. Это, конечно, гораздо удобнее и приятнее, чем на электричках, да и вдвоем лучше, хотя последнее и не факт, потому что когда едешь куда-нибудь далеко один, не болтаешь, и больше шансов впасть в полумедитативное остолбенение и заметить вещи, которые в нормальном состоянии заметить трудно.
I began riding with Sasha. Of course this was much nicer and more convenient than taking electrichkas, and, sure, it’s better to work together, though the latter is not a hard-set rule because when you go somewhere far away by yourself, you don’t chat, so there are more chances to fall into a semimeditative stupor and notice things that are difficult to notice in a normal condition.
Kazansky Station, Moscow, with elektrichka trains.
Photo: Dmitry Danilov
In a later section titled “Rage Against the Machine,” the narrator describes his own experiences driving, concluding that driving wears on the nerves, which is hardly interesting or poetic, qualities he implies he found on public transportation. That follows up nicely on the appealing “semimeditative stupor” in the passage above: Danilov’s use of repetition, short sentences, and seemingly irrelevant details all fit beautifully with the paradoxical daze that envelopes his narrators and acts on the reader. He piles on seemingly dull information but stops short of overload, creating unexpectedly nuanced pictures of situations and atmospheres. And what the narrator of “Black and Green” doesn’t say—about his wife, his clients, his aspirations—is at least as important as what he does say, pushing the reader’s imagination to feel the significance of the gaps.
“Black and Green” includes everything from advice on brewing green tea—Maybe I’d like the stuff if I made it properly?— to quietly humorous summaries of towns. The brief entry for the town of Chekhov, for example, ends with this: “Чехов – не очень хороший город. Чехов – очень хороший писатель.” (“Chekhov is not a very good city. Chekhov is a very good writer.”) The novella also includes a passage about a funeral for a friend who committed suicide. Danilov captures drabness before the funeral:
“Серый день и серый дым из огромной серой трубы. Перовская улица, недра неприятного района Перово. Серые пятиэтажные здания и грязно-белые девятиэтажные здания.”   
“Gray day and gray smoke from a huge gray smokestack. Perovskaya Street, the heart of the unpleasant Perovo area. Gray five-storey buildings and dirty-white nine-storey buildings.”
One of Danilov’s best writerly gifts is that he stops when he’s written enough… just as his narrator in “Black and Green” knows when it’s time to leave the tea trade for an office job, before he tires of tea and no longer enjoys his clockwise sweeps through the Moscow region, loaded down with packages of tea.
A Few Notes:

  • “Black and Green” mentions the Tunguska Event so, as promised, I’ve initiated a Tunguska Event tag
  • “Black and Green” was shortlisted for the Andrei Bely award in 2010, along with Horizontal Position.
  • Литературная газета recently published an interview with Danilov; it’s here.
Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2/5, not especially difficult language; novella length. An especially good choice for readers who’ve visited Russia.

Monday, July 30, 2012

People Who Need People: Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets

Maria Galina’s Медведки (Mole Crickets) is not, alas, a novel about entomology, though there are superficial metaphorical similarities between the nocturnal, burrowing mole cricket and the novel’s narrator, a man who calls himself an editor and lives alone in a rented dacha somewhere in the vicinity of the Black Sea. Galina incorporates plenty of humor as she patches together slivers of various genres—particularly fantasy and picaresque—to examine identity and family, storytelling and mythmaking, truth and invention.

Richard Lydekker's life history of the mole cricket from
The Royal Natural History, 1879. (via Wikipedia)
It’s narrative voice rather than plot or structure that gives Mole Crickets its appeal and cohesion. Our loner narrator, whose last name is Blinkin but goes by the penname Trigorin—Chekhov alert!—writes books for clients, creating pastiches by plopping the clients into storylines from existing works. (I love that he never gives them cell phones...) At the start of Mole Crickets, we watch him transform Joseph Conrad as he fills a client’s order, changing the name of a sea and concluding that Conrad was a pretty good writer.
Blinkin’s somewhat reclusive life is disturbed early in the book when a new client, Smetankin, who grew up in an orphanage, appears and asks Blinkin to create a family history for him. Smetankin’s request is intrusive for Blinkin on many levels. Beyond insisting on fast service that Blinkin would prefer to refuse, Smetankin worsens Blinkin’s relationship with his widower father: Dad thinks Smetankin would be a better son than his editor son, whom he considers a slacker. Smetankin even renovates Dad’s apartment. And then there’s Rogneda, a gothish young woman who arrives at Blinkin’s dacha, claiming to be Smetankin’s Siberian daughter and asking for lodging until Smetankin has a party, a reunion of sorts for his invented (or not?) family. We also meet Finke, Blinkin’s dacha neighbor, an archaeologist.
Mole Crickets is a pleasure to read because Galina’s Blinkin is so engagingly human as he tells all these stories, saying he tires of people, has three nipples like his father, and loves making flea market visits to scout for china. Blinkin’s voice is strong enough that I enjoyed the book to the end even when the interweaving of the book’s subplots didn’t quite work for me. I think part of my (slight) disappointment is that Mole Crickets veered away from expectations Galina established at the start of the book: I enjoyed watching Blinkin size up his client and rewrite Conrad so was looking forward to observing more interactions with clients, books, and various types of fictions.
Blinkin’s invention of a family history for Smetankin worked well for me, though the arrival of Rogneda did not: Rogneda tipped the quirk-o-meter enough that I had trouble suspending disbelief. Rogneda felt a little too modishly clichéd with her attitude and dark clothes, plus I just couldn’t buy that Blinkin would let her stay in his personal (albeit rented) space. Rogneda also contributes to the novel’s mystical and mythical elements, most of which felt tacked on to me. Finke, with his study of Achilles, Hecate, and sacrifices, is part of this angle, too, and Galina even includes a scholarly paper by Finke as an appendix to the novel.
Still, my misgivings feel pretty picky given the sheer entertainment value of Mole Crickets: Galina and Blinkin won me over with their observations about people who need people… as well as family histories that put all those people in context.
Four things:

  • Mole Crickets is a finalist for the 2012 Big Book award. 
  • Mole Crickets was named book of the year (written by a Russian author) on the site Fantlab. 
  • Медведки is available online on Журнальный зал (beginning) (end) and Bookmate (here). 
  • Amanda Love Darragh won the Rossica Prize for her translation of Galina’s Гиви и Шендерович, known in English as Iramifications and available from Glas. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Monday Miscellany: Zakhar Prilepin’s Literary Lists

I love lists—particularly when they catalogue contemporary Russian fiction—so wanted to be sure to post two lists of Zakhar Prilepin’s favorite books and stories from the noughties before I forget their existence.

Both lists appear online and both are taken from Prilepin’s new book, Книгочёт. There’s an interesting mix here: several writers I’d never heard of, a clump of books that didn’t grab me, some unread items on my shelf, and writers I’ve enjoyed very much. Several books and stories have even been translated. The lists are long, so I’ll keep the commentary short… but I’m always happy to hear recommendations!

Novels first:
  • Aleksei Ivanov’s Блудо и МУДО (I’ve seen the title rendered as Cheap Porn). Waiting on my shelf... I’m a little scared of this one because of high expectations. Like Prilepin, I thought Ivanov’s Geographer was good (previous post) but not great.
  • Aleksandr Kuznetsov-Tulianin’s Язычник (The Heathen or The Pagan)—Kuznetsov-Tulianin is a new name for me. Журнальный зал calls this an ethnographic novel.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чёртово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel)—One of my own big, big favorites (previous post). I just love this book.
  • Vladimir “Adol’fych” Nesterenko’s Огненное погребение (literally something like Fiery Burial)—Another new name for me. Crime.
  • Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book)—Letter-Book will be out in Andrew Bromfield’s English translation in 2013 (previous post). Won the 2011 Big Book.
  • Aleksandr Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov’s [Голово]ломка (Headcrusher)—2003 NatsBest winner. Also on my shelf; it never seems to appeal to me. Available in Andrew Bromfield’s translation.
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Сажайте, и вырастет! (Do Time Get Time)—Andrew Bromfield translated Do Time Get Time and recommended Rubanov; alas, my usual book sites and stores never seem to have this particular book.
  • Sergei Samsonov’s Аномалия Камлаева (The Kamlaev Anomaly)—I’ve only read Samsonov’s Oxygen Limit, which I thought was flawed (previous post), but Anomaly sounds better.
  • Aleksandr Terekhov’s Каменный мост (The Stone Bridge)—Coming out soon from Glagoslav in Simon Patterson’s translation. Another nonfavorite, though several friends loved it.
  • Dmitrii Bykov’s trilogy of Оправдание (Justification), Орфография (Orthography), and Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, Or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice)—Though I couldn’t get through either Justification or Ostromov, which won the 2011 NatsBest, I swear I will try Orthography. Too many of you have recommended it.

The stories and novellas sound even better to me:

Monday, July 9, 2012

On Edge by the River: Alexander Ilichevsky’s Anarchists

Alexander Ilichevsky’s Анархисты (The Anarchists) was a lovely reading surprise, a novel that blends, fairly successfully, classical and contemporary themes and stylistics. Though I can quote my own post from 2010 about Ilichevsky’s Booker-winning Matisse and say The Anarchists is also “an ambitious, lumpy novel that uses complex, often poetic imagery and language to present social, existential, and metaphysical angles on post-Soviet Russia,” I found in The Anarchists a more even and more satisfying novel than Matisse.

The Anarchists focuses on Petr Solomin, an aspiring artist who left his Moscow life as a businessman to paint on the Oka River, in the Kaluga oblast’. Solomin’s name is rooted in Russian words related to “straw” and he idolizes Isaac Levitan, who died in 1900 but appears in the book as a character. Solomin wants to understand Levitan’s perspectives. Solomin lives with a woman named Katya, whom he meets early in the book, when she gives him a ride in Moscow. And quite a ride it is: Katya, whose beauty is compared to Greta Garbo’s, is a flaky driver. Solomin has to bring her home with him; she turns out to have an addiction. Their acquaintances in the country include two doctors, an Orthodox priest, super-rich newlyweds, and a schoolteacher who’s a specialist in Yevgeny Onegin.

The Anarchists focuses primarily on Solomin’s various sufferings—with himself, with Katya and her addiction, with a Bazarov-like young doctor, and with the rest of the world—and Ilichevsky generally paces the book nicely. The first half of the book is a bit slower and background-heavy than the second, with tangents that take us back in history, telling the story of a local anarchist and natural history expeditions—for those of you keeping track, the Tunguska event gets another mention here and may soon win a tag of its own on the blog. We see the contemporary characters interact with nature, too, particularly the river. There are also heavy, deep, and real conversations among the doctors and the priest: they talk about philosophy and, yes, gossip about Solomin and Katya. Some of this talk feels playful, on the verge of parody.

Ilichevsky folds in lots of literary predecessors, including the afore-mentioned Yevgeny Onegin, Dostoevsky’s Myshkin, a Chekhovesque gun, Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, and the ever-dreaded-but-popular superfluous man. Many of the book’s themes come together when Solomin tells Dr. Dubrovin that all the escapees to the provinces are anarchists because they want autonomy. Solomin also admits to being a superfluous man. We already know his difficulties with Russian society: he loves Eurotravel and fancies the idea of getting lost or disappearing amidst spirits in the woods. Which he does.

How I imagined it: 
Levitan’s Тишина (Silence)
For me, it’s the river that anchors the novel, connecting themes—art, science, nature—and historical eras, and offering landscapes (often with people) for Ilichevsky to describe. And describe he does, beginning the novel with summaries of seasons on the Oka and ending it with the river reflecting a female face. I think the river, both because of its constancy and because of Ilichevsky’s descriptions, contributed most to my rather indescribable enjoyment of The Anarchists.

Rarely do I use words like “beguiling” to describe a novel… but “beguiling” fits my experience with The Anarchists. I loved the book’s contrasts and combinations: the feel of simultaneously reading the present and the past, the feel of rural leisure and urban urgency, and the feel of ancient settings inhabited by contemporary people. Yes, The Anarchists is lumpy, but I think the lumps and tangents give the book much of its organic energy. Ilichevsky pulls so many elements into his novel that it’s tempting to call him an anarchist, too, but he’s careful with his material, which he seems to love very much. Perhaps that gave him the strength to pull back from offering too much about, say, expeditions, anarchists, or Levitan himself. The result is a curiously timeless composite of past and present that mixes post-Soviet alienation with language, straw hats, rural doctors, river banks, bicycles, and literary motifs that took me back to alienated characters from Russian classics, particularly Chekhov and Turgenev.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ы!: Zakhar Prilepin’s Black Monkey

The core of Zakhar Prilepin’s novel The Black Monkey tells the story of the implosion of a contemporary Russian nuclear family—narrated by a nameless father who tells of his nameless son, nameless daughter, and nameless wife—that ends (almost) not with a bang but with the whimper of the letter ы. Prilepin extends his range beyond the family by inserting set pieces from other times and places that show the destruction of other families and, by extension, societies. One story, set in Africa, includes an extreme example of in loco parentis, for child soldiers, plus mentions of, apparently, celebrity mom Angelina Jolie.
Since Prilepin is, thank goodness, still Prilepin, he juxtaposes episodes of misbehavior, stupidity, and cruelty, some quite nasty, with tenderness, particularly his mixed-up narrator’s love for his small children. He feeds them, reads to them, and worries about them. His descriptions of how they unlock the apartment door when he rings, dragging a chair to the door so they can reach the lock, felt especially sweet. Meanwhile, stories of child violence and the father’s visits to his mistress and a prostitute led this reader to wonder what will happen to these kids who chew gum like a meat grinder and eat whatever hotdogs and pel’meni their nameless father puts on their plates…
The Black Monkey worked best for me as an atmospheric novel, in large part because Prilepin combines realism and abstraction, using language that has a quick, modern flow. The novel has wonderfully mischievous humor that felt especially vivid after seeing and hearing Prilepin at BookExpo America. And the book is a page-turner, albeit in a strange way: I didn’t especially look forward to reading it but it held my interest and kept me reading whenever I picked it up, despite a somewhat disjointed structure that, I must admit, fits the topic. Most telling, though, is that The Black Monkey keeps knocking around my poor skull; it dug its way into my subconscious.
For me, the highlight of The Black Monkey was a brief scene where Nameless Dad reads to his  children from a primer. The primer, though, is unusual: the letters aren’t presented in alphabetical order. Instead, they’re listed “будто в строгий порядок букв упал камень и все рассыпал,” (“as if a rock fell into the strict order and scattered everything”). The book presents “a,” the first letter of the alphabet, then another vowel, у,” which occurs in the second half of the alphabet and sounds like “oo.” Dad plays with words for a bit with his kids then leaves them, saying he’s going for cigarettes. He calls his mistress and plays more with the primer’s words as he trots down the stairs and, literally, runs into his wife at the entrance to the apartment building.
Nameless Dad calls his mistress, Alya, again from her building’s entryway, pronouncing three vowel sounds, “Ы. У. О.” (“Y. U. O.”… though “ы” doesn’t sound like “y,” it sounds like the tiny ы audio on this page). Alya asks, “Кто это?” (“Who is this?”), addressing a Big Issue of Nameless Guy’s life that goes along with the collapse of his family, the disordering of his alphabet (scary for a journalist), and all that violence. I’d say the letter ы wins a place of (dis?)honor in the book: Nameless Dad’s last utterance is a pained “Ы-ы-ы!” Accompanied by thoughts of Hell.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Guest Post by Olga Bukhina: Having It Both Ways

I was very happy when translator and writer Olga Bukhina sent me a note last month asking if I’d like her to write another guest post about Russian literature for children. I was happy to say Yes: some of you told me you enjoyed her previous guest post, plus I’d been so busy teaching and working on preparations for Read Russia that I was getting behind in my own reading and writing. Of course, Olga’s topic sounded great, too—writers who write for adults and kids—and two of the writers she mentions in her post were in New York last week for BookExpo America and Read Russia events. I’m grateful to Olga for writing this post (even more so because I came home exhausted and with a bad cold)… and for being such a good friend and colleague last week in New York!

Many contemporary writers who write primarily for adults have tried their hands at writing for children, or perhaps it’s better to say that they’ve experimented with writing books that can be read both by adults and by kids. As Dmitry Bykov eloquently put it in the subtitle to one of his books, “A Children’s Book for Adults, or An Adults’ Book for Children.”
Lyudmila Ulitskaya has published a lot of short stories about children, such as her series Девочки (Girls), but her Истории про зверей и людей (Stories of Animals and People) are for kids. The book starts with three tales with very long descriptive names. История про воробья Антверпена, кота Михеева, столетника Васю и сороконожку Марью Семеновну с семьей (A Story of Antwerp the Sparrow, Mikheev the Cat, Vasya the Aloe Plant, and Maria Semenovna the Centipede and Her Family) is about three creatures who first get together out of loneliness. They stay together for the sake of helping a muddle-headed mother centipede to raise her enormous family. These little tales are funny and to the point, and have just exactly the right proportion of light humor and moral message. Yes, it is good to love everyone, including “those who do not look like you, for example, sparrows, cats, and aloe plants.” The tales are followed by a collection of very short stories, Детство-49 (Childhood-49), published before as a separate book. These are more realistic vignettes of post-World War II Soviet childhood, and the reader clearly sees the events through the child-protagonist’s eyes and senses the child’s biggest fear or strongest desire.
Bykov’s О зверьках и зверушах (About Critters and Creatures), whose subtitle I already mentioned above, is sometimes published as a part of a larger book В мире животиков (In the World of Animalitos). He co-authored these tales with his wife Irina Luk’ianova. They are tiny stories about various animal-like creatures who live in different towns, Гордый (Proud-Town) and Преображенск (Transfiguration-City). They are female and male, and behave just like people in spite of their tassel tails. Some of them are very good, others are very bad, and still others are somewhere in between. There is a lot of contemporary politics, eternal religious debate, Christian allusions, parodies of Russian intelligentsia, and gender role discussions in these tales. Some of them are truly for children, others are more for adults, but all of them are written in a fairytalish form with a light touch. Сказка о необитаемом острове (A Tale of the Desert Island) about the adventures of two young ones, Il’ka and Fedya, is, to my taste, the most touching story in the collection.
Boris Minaev is a different case: he is someone who started as a children’s writer and moved into adult literature later on. His Детство Левы (Leva’s Childhood) is a quite realistic story of Soviet Jewish childhood in the early 1970s. It is almost a memoir with details which are very familiar to anyone who lived through these times: the yard outside of the apartment building, soccer and other games, the Victory Day celebration, the fear of darkness, a hole in the asphalt which turned out to be a cave without a treasure, a children’s movie for 10 kopeks in the local movie theater, and a first cheap cigarette.
Another time-traveling experience is Boris Akunin’s Детская книга (Children’s Book). It is a part of his famous Fandorin series, but this time the main character is not an Erast Fandorin, an aristocrat and an adventurist, and not his grandson, a Moscow detective, but his great grandson and namesake who lives in contemporary Moscow and travels to 1914, to the time of Boris Godunov in the 17th century, and to the future with the help of “chronoholes.” It is a combination of adventure novel and historical fiction, and a page turner.
The postmodern tales of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Lyudmila Petrushevskaya) are really in their own category. The longer I read them, the more I am convinced that they are not in the realm of children’s literature. Their dark and absurdist humor targets a much more mature audience, even though the series about Barbie dolls from the collection Настоящие сказки (The Real Tales) looks like children’s stories, and many other stories refer to classical fairy-tales. A similar literary device was used by Alexander Kabakov in his Московские сказки (The Moscow Tales), where he applies well-known fairy-tales and legends, like the Tower of Babel, to contemporary situations.
For more: Olga Bukhina often writes Russian-language posts for a blog maintained by the Working Group for Study of Russian Children’s Literature and Culture. The blog also contains pieces written in English.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Terekhov Wins NatsBest

Alexander Terekhov won the National Bestseller Award today for his Немцы ([The?] Germans). According to Lenta.ru, he received votes from four of the six judges. Two other writers received votes in the final round: Anna Starobinets, for Живущий (The Living) and Sergei Nosov for Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier). 

That’s it for tonight from New York!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Big Book’s Rather Long Short List

I wanted to be sure to make a very quick post with the Big Book Award’s 2012 short(er) list before heading off tomorrow for BookExpo America and lots of ReadRussia events… three of the writers on the short list will be in New York: Vladimir Makanin, Zakhar Prilepin, and Andrei Rubanov. Two books—those by Nosov and Stepnova—are also NatsBest finalists, and Eltang’s book has already won an award from Russian Prize. I don’t know much about the other books on the list other than Prilepin’s, which I’m reading, so am most certainly lacking in nuance for translating the titles!

  • Maria Galina: Медведки (Mole-Crickets)
  • Daniil Granin: Мой лейтенант… (My Lieutenant…)
  • Aleksandr Grigorenko: Мэбэт. История человека тайги (Mebet. The Story of a Person from the Taiga)
  • Vladimir Gubailovsky: Учитель цинизма (The Teacher of Cynicism)
  • Andrei Dmitriev: Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager)
  • Aleksandr Kabakov, Evgenii Popov: Аксёнов (Aksyonov)
  • Vladimir Makanin: Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky)
  • Sergei Nosov: Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier)
  • Valerii Popov: Плясать досмерти (To Dance to Death)
  • Zakhar Prilepin: Чёрная обезьяна (The Black Monkey)
  • Andrei Rubanov: Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats/Exploits)
  • Marina Stepnova: Женщины Лазаря (The Women of Lazarus/Lazarus’s Women)
  • Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov): «Несвятые святые» и другие рассказы (“Unsaintly Saints” and Other Stories)
  • Lena Eltang: Другие барабаны (Other Drums)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Potpourri: Astvatsaturov and Shargunov, Rossica Awards

Back at last: it’s been quite a month of May! This week I have quick—and rather awkward, since their genres aren’t my usual reading—summaries of books by two writers who will be in New York soon for Read Russia and BookExpo America events, plus aging news on two awards, plus a bit about upcoming posts…
First the books... Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Люди в голом (People in the Nude), labelled a novel, is a book of what I’d call vignettes—some feel especially essayistic and/or autobiographical—that Astvatsaturov links with the motif of nudity, psychological and physical. I only read Part One, which I loved for its humorously biting accounts of childhood and its absurdities. Little Andrei Astvatsaturov, for example, isn’t allowed to use a local swimming pool because he talks with a friend, though the pool lady tells his mother it’s because he’s not strong and athletic enough. The friend who lent me People in the Nude especially liked a passage where Andrei and another friend communicate, wordlessly, during a field trip to a Lenin museum: the friend moves his shoulder and mouths “хрусть, хрусть” (“crack, crack”), referencing their interest in skeletons, which arose out of some poetry, drawing, and the idea of skeletons climbing the stairs to Lenin… trust us, it’s funnier and more wonderful than I can make it sound here. (I Googled because I was curious to see if anyone else liked that passage: it’s quoted here in Власть.)
Economical communication is Astvatsaturov’s strength as a writer, too: his portrayals of being a kid—playing at home alone, say, and taking a phone message—are brief but feel richly (arche)typical, with a combination of could-be-anywhere themes plus details, like involving imported beer cans in play, that feel distinctly Soviet-era. I gave the home alone dialogue to my first-year Russian students: the language was simple enough that they could read and enjoy some real Russian. (Bonus: They loved the book’s cover!) I’ll read Part Two later, if I can renew my book loan… it feels different from childhood, beginning with reflections on writing then moving on to a scene where a literary “dama,” smoking a cigarette, tells Andrei, “У вас не проза, Аствацатуров... а огрызки из отрывок” (literally “You don’t have prose, Astvatsaturov… but bits of excerpts.”) True enough, but his blend of invention and apparent autobiography were funny enough that I laughed out loud. Many times.
Reading Sergei Shargunov’s Книга без фотографий (A Book Without Photographs) immediately after People in the Nude certainly emphasized stylistic differences: where Astvatsaturov’s leisurely descriptions blend real life and invention, Shargunov composes a terser, more straightforward memoir that methodically barrels through episodes in his life, linking them through photographs and photography. Shargunov also covers childhood and young adulthood, beginning as the child of a priest and not joining the Pioneers, then winning the Debut Prize, becoming a political activist, and visiting political hot spots, including Chechnya, as a journalist. I thought the quick pace suited the material well, given Shargunov’s writings about politics, including the October 1993 Events, his attempt at elected office, and mentions of where he’s not allowed to photograph. A Book Without Photographs reads easily, as a perceptive personal history of the late Soviet and early post-Soviet eras. I enjoyed Shargunov’s combination of toughness and honesty, which—again!—contrasts with Astvatsaturov, whose book also feels very honest, though People in the Nude has more of a feel of irony and vulnerability than toughness.
Rossica Awards. Better late than never on this information! Academia Rossica announced last week that John Elsworth won the 2012 Rossica Translation Prize for his translation of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, and Gregory Afinogenov won the Rossica Young Translators Award for his translation of excerpts of Viktor Pelevin’s S.N.U.F.F. Congratulations to both.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

BookExpo America & Andrei Rubanov’s Good Life

With BookExpo America—which has a big, huge Russia focus this year—coming up in about four weeks, I’m focusing my reading on BEA writers for the next month or so. Today’s post, about Andrey Rubanov’s Жизнь удалась (All That Glitters), is the first of a series of pieces about books by writers who will be at BEA.
A brief point of information before I get to Rubanov: The Russian global market forum at BEA is just one part of a bigger program, Read Russia 2012, which includes a slew of events in New York open to the public, an expo of books and art for children, and a documentary on contemporary Russian writers. As I’ve mentioned before, I am (disclosure!, disclosure!) very happily working away on projects for Read Russia and will be at BEA, which I love every year… meaning I am beyond excited for this year’s fair. An intensifier for all that excitement: an anthology of Russian stories will include two of my translations, plus some of my favorite writers, including Margarita Khemlin and Vladimir Makanin, will be coming to New York for BEA.
So! On to Mr. Rubanov’s book, known as All That Glitters on his agent’s Web site. What I found most interesting about Rubanov’s novel—which covers the disappearance and subsequent finding of a Moscow wine salesman named Matvei Matveevich Matveev—is Rubanov’s mixture of two genres: social novel and detective novel. Matveev disappears after saying goodbye to his loyal wife, Marina, at the beginning of the book, and Rubanov interweaves numerous characters’ timelines, establishing MMM’s rise from aimless youth to a member of the upper-middle class who falls very ill after visiting two men who promise to forgive his rather substantial debt.
Rubanov also offers histories of the men MMM goes to see: a retired hockey player who goes on to head up an NGO for retired athletes and his evil sidekick, a prickly former doctor known as Kaktus. He works in a police detective, too, a hardboiled lone wolf, Svinets, (“lead,” as in Pb), whom Marina hires to find MMM. This is a lot of main characters, but I thought Rubanov managed them and his supporting characters efficiently, showing, for example, how MMM and Kaktus crossed paths in high school—old jealousies run horribly deep here—and revealing back stories in a way that combines suspense with (almost) plodding detail.
I thought Rubanov did even better on the social side, describing the Moscow nineties with mentions of the MMM pyramid scheme, which interplays well with Matveev’s name, crooked nonprofit organizations, and the idea that qualities like decisiveness and stick-to-itiveness were more important in that era than education. He also notes the October Events of 1993; Matveev keeps a distance, as he did in 1991.
Another most interesting thing about All That Glitters is its kitsch element, something I noticed even before I read that Rubanov himself called the book “чистый кич” (“pure kitsch”). I think it was MMM’s focus on a happy orange sky, a motif in the book that sounds suspiciously like the bright future of socialist realism, that tipped me off early in the book. Plus characters using the title words, which, in dialogue, might sound more like “life is good” or “the good life.” Then there’s the removal of the pads on one character’s fingers (this has some icky consequences), the hardboiled cop’s tractor-driving brother outside Moscow, and all those searches for empty lives with lucre that (as we know) can’t buy happiness. Of course the novel wouldn’t have been complete without a stripper. Or Svinets having to watch the same TV channel as the neighbors, who live beyond a thin wall, so he can feel like he has his own space.
The final most interesting thing about All That Glitters is that it works fairly well as a slow-burn thriller with lively language and a strong social element that generates sadness, humor, and irony. Despite being a little overloaded with information and back story in many spots, with Rubanov’s take on Moscow in the nineties and the choice of hockey (which I love) instead of, say, soccer or basketball, All That Glitters managed to keep me well-entertained even when my head was cloudy from a cold. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

More Award News: Russian Prize Winners & Big Book Long List

Another spring month, another post about awards… this time it’s winners of the Russian Prize plus the long long list for the Big Book Award.

The Russian Prize is awarded to writers who write in Russian but live outside Russia. Yuz Aleshkovsky won in the long fiction category for his Маленький тюремный роман (A Little Prison Novel). It’s been on the shelf waiting for me for a few months… which isn’t so long, considering I’ve been meaning to read Aleshkovsky for years. The other long fiction winners were Darya Vilke for Межсезонье (Off Season) and Lena Eltang for Другие барабаны (Other Drums).
The short fiction winner was Dmitry Vachedin for the short story collection Пыль (Dust), with second prize going to Maria Rybakova for the novel in verse Гнедич (Gnedich), and third to Evgenii Abdullaev for the novella Год барана (Year of the Sheep). The top poetry award went to Ilya Rissenberg for Третий из двух (The Third of Two), followed by Alexei Tsvetkov for Детектор смысла (Sense Detector) and Feliks Chechik for Из жизни фауны и флоры (From the Life of Fauna and Flora).
Now for the Big Book long list. And all these awards programs really do put the “long” in the long list: Big Book claims this year’s list contains 46 books, three of which are manuscripts listed without author names. I’ll just trust their count. And I won’t list everybody. A few names that popped out:
Lena Eltang’s Other Drums is on the list as are two books that recently made the 2012 NatsBest short list: Marina Stepnova’s Женщцны Лазаря (excerpt) (The Women of Lazarus) and Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier); Figgle-Miggle’s Ты так любишь эти фильмы (You Love Those Films So Much) was on last year’s NatsBest short list. Nikolai Kononov’s Фланёр (The Flâneur) and Nikolai Baitov’s Думай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak) were both shortlisted for the 2012 NOSE award.
I’ve only read one book on the list: Roman Senchin’s Information, which I wrote about here. I’ve also read bits of Oleg Pavlov’s Дневник больничного охранника (Diary of a Hospital Guard), which felt a little too intense to read in the PDF Pavlov sent to me.
There are several books by authors whose previous books I’ve particularly enjoyed: Vladimir Makanin’s Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky), Zakhar Prilepin’s Черная обезьяна (The Black Monkey), and Vsevolod Benigsen’s ВИТЧ (VITCh). A few more: Alexander Ilichevsky’s Анархисты ( [The?] Anarchists), Elena Chizhova’s Терракотовая старуха (The Terracotta Old Lady), and Sergei Samsonov’s Проводник электричества (Conductor of Electricity).
I could go on and on… but I’ll just note that the Big Book covers fiction and nonfiction. And mention that the books on the long list were selected from a total of 401 (!!) works. The short list will be announced on May 31, and winners will be named by November 30.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

2012 NatsBest Finalists

I’m a few days late with the National Bestseller short list… here’s the list of six finalists, in order of how many points they were awarded during long list voting. I’m using some titles from literary agents’ pages and taking information for these brief descriptions from various sources, mostly Viktor Toporov’s summary of long list voting, jury member and press reviews, and publisher blurbs.

Aleksandr Terekhov’s Немцы ((The?) Germans) – 12 points. About Luzhkov-era Moscow. The publisher’s blurb calls Germans satirical. (“Satirical” is certainly a genre that seems fitting for Luzhkov-era Moscow…)
Vladimir Lidskii’s Русский садизм (Russian Sadism) – 7 points. Lidskii is the only shortlisted writer I hadn’t heard of, and the NatsBest summary says he was unknown, calling his book “яркий, странный и страшный” (“vivid, strange, and frightening”). Jury member Mikhail Vizel’ said this big novel about the Russian revolution and the “totalitarian empire” that followed is highly naturalistic.
Vladimir Lorchenkov’s Копи Царя Соломона (Tsar Solomon’s Mines) – 7 points. According to the blog called Заметил просто, this energetic action/adventure book is about a Jewish boy named Solomon Tsar. During World War 2 he hides in a cave near a site where the Nazis shoot people; Solomon gathers gold from the bodies, amassing tons. Decades later people want the gold.
Marina Stepnova’s Женщцны Лазаря (excerpt) (The Women of Lazarus) – 7 points. A family saga that starts just after the revolution and centers around a physicist and some of the women in his life. What sounds most interesting to me about The Woman of Lazarus is that Liza Novikova, in a review for Izvestiia, calls Stepnova’s book an “attack on the reading audience of Liudmila Ulitskaya and Dina Rubina.”
Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier) – 6 points. A passage to India to meet a Brahmin, in which the travelers are a poet, a psychiatrist, a jealous couple, and Françoise. Toporov says the ironic storytelling of Françoise is Booker-like.
Anna Starobinets’s Живущий (The Living) – 6 votes. Immortality in a post-disaster world, where everyone on the planet is one. Except a man known as Zero. The cover has to be the scariest on the NatsBest short list. April 17 update: A reader e-mailed to let me know that Hesperus will publish The Living, in James Rann’s translation, this fall. 
The winner will be announced on June 3. No matter who wins, there shouldn’t be any grousing this year that the winner is too famous or too previously prize-laden to be an appropriate choice for an award intended to help a deserving writer become an intellectual/literary bestseller. The writers with the highest profiles are probably Terekhov, who won a Big Book second prize in 2009 for The Stone Bridge, and Starobinets, who is a journalist, screenwriter, and fiction writer. But I don’t think either of them is well-enough known to be a household name.
Speaking of last year’s winner, Dmitry Bykov’s Ostromov, Or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice… I tried reading Ostromov but had to stop after about 90 pages. I loved the setting—Leningrad in the mid-1920s, with seediness and oddities that flashed me back to Vaginov’s city and my reading about the Petersburg mythos—and the characters and Mason theme intrigued me. But Bykov’s wordiness and digressions did me in. And I don’t like to skim books, an approach more than one of you has recommended for reading/enjoying Bykov. I just don’t get much enjoyment from a book when I have to edit so much in my head. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Notable New Translations for 2012 (plus a few from 2011 and for 2013…)

Ah, lists! Now that I’ve finally finished compiling this list, I understand why I procrastinated for so long: the titles may already translated for me but this inventory of newish and upcoming translations is larger than I expected. A very nice problem to have! I’ll start with brand-new and then meander…
A few notes first: If I’ve blogged about a book, I linked my previous post to its Russian title. I linked English titles to publisher pages. Actual release dates (and even titles!) may vary. Finally: my apologies that translator names are missing for a few entries. I’ll fill those in as soon as I can!
I’m happy to report that Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Happiness Is Possible (Счастье возможно), translated by Andrew Bromfield, is out from And Other Stories, a new British publisher. Another book I enjoyed, Zakhar Prilepin’s Sin (Грех), winner of the NatsBest of the decade award, was just released by another new publisher, Glagoslav, in Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas’s translation. Glagoslav also recently brought out a Patterson-Chordas translation of Elena Chizhova’s The Time of Women (Время женщин), not a favorite but a book that brought record numbers of questions after The New York Times ran an article about Chizhova.
Other Glagoslav Russian-English translations on this year’s calendar include: Igor Sakhnovsky’s The Vital Needs of the Dead (Насущные нужды умерших), translated by Julia Kent (June); Alexander Terekhov’s The Stone Bridge (Каменный мост), translated by Patterson and Chordas (Oct.); Oleg Pavlov’s Asystole (Асистолия) (Dec.) by a translator TBA, and Eduard Kochergin’s NatsBest-winning Christened With Crosses (Крещенные крестами), translated by Patterson (Nov.).
A few other relatively new books… Pavel Kostin’s It’s Time (Время пришло), in James Rann’s translation, from Urban Romantics; and two books by Andrey Kurkov from Melville House: Penguin Lost (Закон улитки) and The Case of the General’s Thumb (Игра в отрезанный палец), both translated by George Bird. Another book with an animal theme is forthcoming from Hesperus in June: The Way of Muri (Путь Мури), by Ilya Boyashov, translated by Amanda Love Darragh, is an allegorical novel about a cat wandering Europe; it won the 2007 National Bestseller Award. Another British publisher, Angel Classics, will release Muireann Maguire’s Red Spectres: Russian Twentieth-Century Tales of the Supernatural, a collection that includes pieces by writers including Krzhizhanovsky, Bulgakov, Chayanov, and Peskov.
Books on the way later this year include Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair (Венерин волос), in Marian Schwartz’s translation, from Open Letter, and St. Petersburg Noir, edited by literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen, and published by Akashic with commissioned stories from writers including Sergei Nosov, Lena Eltang, and Andrei Rubanov (Aug.). Amazon Crossing has several books by Andrei Gelasimov, translated by Marian Schwartz, listed with various dates in late 2012 and 2013; my favorite is The Lying Year (Год обмана), currently listed for January 2013. I should also mention two nonfiction books Marian translated for Yale University Press: The Leningrad Blockade, 1941-1944, edited by Richard Bidlack and Nikita Lomagin, is on the schedule for June, and Aleksandra Shatskikh’s Black Square, with scholarship on Malevich, arrives later.
What else? Another book with “happy” in the title: in November, New York Review Books will bring out Happy Moscow, a compilation of works by Andrey Platonov in translations by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler, with Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. The book includes a revised translation of the title novel plus two stories, an article, and a film script. Robert & Elizabeth Chandler—along with Sibelan Forrester, Anna Gunin, and Olga Meerson—have another title on the way: Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, coming from Penguin Classics in December 2012. Robert Chandler told me the book is roughly half “true folktales”; the other stories are from Pushkin, Bazhov, Teffi, and Platonov.
Last—but definitely not least—are titles from Glas, many part of Glas’s collaboration with the Debut Prize: Arslan Khasavov’s Sense (Смысл) translated by Arch Tait (spring-summer)¸ Vlas Doroshevich’s What the Emperor Cannot Do: Tales and Legends of the Orient translated by Rowen Glie and John Dewey (spring); and an anthology, Still Waters Run Deep: Young Women’s Writing from Russia (September). Several other Glas books are already available: The Scared Generation, two short novels by Boris Yampolsky (The Old Arbat/Арбат, режимная улица) and Vasil Bykov (The Manhunt/Облава), translated by Rachel Polonsky and John Dewey… Mendeleev Rock, with Andrei Kuzechkin’s title novella (Менделеев-рок) and Pavel Kostin’s Rooftop Anesthesia (Анестезия крыш), both translated by Andrew Bromfield… and Off the Beaten Tracks: Stores by Russian Hitchhikers, with Igor Savelyev’s Pale City (Бледный город), Irina Bogatyreva’s АвтоSTOP (Off the Beaten Track), and Tatiana Mazepina’s Traveling Towards Paradise; translators include Amanda Love-Darragh. On the way: Alexander Snegirev’s Petroleum Venus (Нефтяная Венера), apparently in early 2013.
One more last but not least: Russian Life sent me two books in recent months… Maya Kucherskaya’s Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy (Современный патерик), translated by Alexei Bayer, is described on the back of my review copy as a mix of fact, fiction, myth, and history. And a story collection by Stephan Erik Clark, Vladimir’s Mustache, is written in English but set in Russia, in various centuries. It looks promising.
I have a horrible feeling I’ve forgotten something or somebody… but it won’t be Andrew Bromfield’s translation of Displaced Person (Перемещённое лицо), the third/last of Vladimir Voinovich’s Chonkin books, due out some day, some month from Northwestern University Press! Please add a comment or send me a note if I’ve forgotten (or didn’t know about) your book(s). Or, horrors, made an error.

Post-Posting Additions:
April 17: Hesperus will publish James Rann’s translation of Anna Starobinets’s Живущий in fall 2012, as The Living.
Two other bits of news:
I’ve been excited (for at least a year!) that Russia will be the featured country at this year’s BookExpo America. I’m especially excited now that I’m working on preparations for the many Read Russia events scheduled for early June in New York… the list of writers scheduled to attend includes Olga Slavnikova and Mikhail Shishkin, plus a bunch of Debut Prize writers. I’ll be writing more, soon, about BEA and Read Russia.
Also, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, is organizing a conference, “Decadence or Renaissance? Russian Literature Since 1991,” for September 24-26, 2012. Conference organizers are soliciting proposals for papers; information is here. I hope to go!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Insects and Comrades: Two Novellas

I’ve mentioned before that I love reading long stories and novellas… and I still love how the genre gives just enough room for a writer to develop characters and a complex story but not enough space for aimless wandering. That in mind, here are two more novellas: their stories are very, very different but I think both are successful in their own ways. I’ll try to go light on details because I think short stories, long stories, and novellas are especially prone to spoilage.

I think it’s a safe bet that Anna Starobinets’s Переходный возраст (An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin), a long story about Max, a maladjusted boy with a twin sister, Vika, and some bizarre habits, will be most effective among readers with insect phobias. I was the kid who adored her multi-module Ant Farm, but An Awkward Age contained some ew-inducing moments for me, too, thanks to several squalid discoveries and Max’s mother’s rather impassive reactions to her son’s behavior.
Starobinets tells her story in simple language where repeated motifs help build suspense, and I thought she did nicely combining nature and city by setting the story amongst the trees and birds of Moscow’s Yasnevo outskirts. Another plus: she explains the reasons behind Max’s behavior by having his mother discover his diaries, handily reproduced in the story. I found some of that section particularly entertaining thanks to young Max’s phonetic spelling.
Though I didn’t think An Awkward Age was nearly as good or fun as Starobinets’s Sanctuary 3/9, a later work that’s loaded with fear and fairy tale themes, I have to give her credit for stringing me along pretty well with An Awkward Age. I read it very quickly and not just because of the large print in my book. Starobinets is often compared to Stephen King, something the Mainer in me can’t quite buy into, though I have to wonder if Starobinets’s inclusion of a prom-like senior dance is intended to remind readers of King’s Carrie.
Irina Bogatyreva’s Товарищ Анна (Comrade Anna), a finalist for this year’s Belkin Prize and nominee for the NatsBest, is a slower-paced, far more rewarding (and difficult to write about!) long story, about the relationship—it’s more than just young love because of how the story’s written—between Anna, a Muscovite who takes retro to extremes with her political activity, and Valka, an easy-going guy from Ulyanovsk who falls for Anna. I think what I appreciate most about Comrade Anna is Bogatyreva’s ability to contrast the lives of Anna and Valka: Anna, for example, lives with a politically liberal grandmother who disagrees with her granddaughter’s views and seems to be verging on dementia, and Valka lives on the eleventh floor of a dorm with a roommate, the roommate’s girlfriend, and a cat. Plus a model of the solar system for perspective.
What’s most intriguing is that Valka’s atmosphere is freer and more “collective” than Anna’s; Anna is a member of a cell-like political organization that aims to recreate the allegedly good old days of revolution. Members even dress in costume for new year’s eve. By contrast, Valka’s dormmates (re)tell his story in the first person singular, observing Valka’s behavior and sliding in and out of a close third-person narrative. Still, they speak in a unified voice that’s far more cohesive and human than what we get from Anna’s group, where members disagree on how and how much to act. Their language is tragicomically stagnant, too, because it’s filled with Soviet-era phrases.
Though I never quite grasped why Valka fell so hard for Anna—from a distance, in the Metro—that he felt compelled to follow her and introduce himself, I realized that didn’t matter much. For one thing, Bogatyreva filters Valka’s story through his dormmates, who can’t know everything. For another, the attraction fits with the novella’s appealingly appropriate combination of reality and irreality. Another example: Bogatyreva includes a tangent at the start of Comrade Anna that presents a dormmate obsessed with Mikhail Vrubel’s “Swan Princess” painting. He dies and Valka takes his place on the eleventh floor. Bogatyreva returns to the Swan Princess at the end of the story in a way that puzzled me a bit until I read Marta Antonicheva’s review in the journal Октябрь: to paraphrase, Antonicheva thinks the Swan Princess helps establish Valka’s transition back to real life after the costumes and falsity of Anna’s circle. Which makes complete sense to me, given the fairy tales they want to believe in.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Roman Senchin’s New Information

I think the key to understanding Roman Senchin’s new novel, Информация (The Information) is on its back cover. Below a photo and a bio, Senchin says, in a quote from an interview with the Agency of Political News, that he watches a lot of TV, particularly sports and dumb [reality] shows that aren’t good for the psyche. And he mentions bread and circuses. I’ll work my way back to this, including some mild spoilers as I describe the book…

The Information begins when a nameless first-person narrator, a Muscovite from the Volga region who works in media buying (медиабаинг, some information-based field I don’t truly grasp in either language), sees his wife received a text message from another man, wishing her a good night and calling her рыбка (how about “my little fish”?). After intercepting this information, our anti-hero storms out, gets drunk, and ends up with frostbite that nearly results in amputation. Marriage over. I can typify much of the rest of the novel with a long, messy list: Nameless Guy gets a new apartment, sees old friends that include a driver named Ivan and a writer named Svechin who also form a rock group called Bad Omen (echoing Senchin’s own experience), attempts a relationship with the temptingly named Angelina, goes to Dagestan for a work assignment, and nearly marries a woman with all sorts of emotional problems.
Senchin is, fortunately, still Senchin so nasty complications arise to make Nameless Guy’s life even more of a living hell. Samples: legal and financial problems related to apartments, a bender that causes hallucinations, and a traffic cop planting white powder in Nameless Guy’s Celica. What I like about Senchin so very much is that I can’t say he’s unfair. Nameless Guy is one of the most unsympathetic and obnoxious narrators I’ve had the (dis)pleasure to read in a long time. Nameless Guy drinks himself way beyond stupid more than once, admits to cheating on his wife (prostitutes are okay?), and describes his feelings for women in ways that make you suspect he’s incapable of respect. He’s typing up his story—his “information” about events—in a darkened apartment because he’s hiding out. He thinks several people want to kill him.
I could cite many books that feel like The Information’s thematic and formal ancestors—from Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time and Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground to Sergei Minaev’s lighter Soulless and Oleg Pavlov’s heavier Asystole—plus Nameless Guy compares his imaginary self to the title character of American Psycho and mentions enjoying works like Sartre’s Nausea and Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. I read (and also loved) Nausea years ago and found that the Wikipedia page description for Journey could almost describe The Information, too, thanks to its nihilism, misanthropy, and cynical humor.
Existentialism is crucial here: with his behavior and his hiding, Nameless Guy essentially crosses himself out of a meaningful existence, both in the lives of his friends and family, and in the larger world. Not that his life has had much meaning during the years he describes; this superfluous man for the noughties has had ideas to do good things, like establish a literary journal, but that’s forgotten early in the book because all his drama, much of it self-inflicted, interrupts plans to build a normal (normal!), comfortable life as a middle-class office worker.
What amazes me most about The Information is that it works beautifully, as a diabolical combination of realism, satire, parody, and the grotesque. Nameless Guy tells his story in colloquial language that is almost painfully unpretty at times. And the story itself is horribly lumpy, chronologically confusing, and angry. The Information’s narrator is so appealingly unappealing that I couldn’t put the book down—I’m one of those rubbernecker readers who loves to observe jerks involved in psychic accidents—though I was initially disappointed in the book’s structure and TMI, thinking Senchin had let me down with The Information after the social and formal precision and concision of his Yeltyshevs, which looks at some similar themes using very different settings, characters, and style.
But then Nameless Guy began criticizing his own writing and explaining his minutiae. And then I focused on the quotation on the back of the book and began reading The Information as a twisted confessional novel about life in the age of reality programming, where everyone knows absolutely everything about everyone else’s business (right, my little fishes?), the global financial crisis wreaks havoc on jobs, and a generation of young adults is still trying to figure itself out after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The most devastating aspect of The Information was reading the last page and closing the book, wondering if anybody in Nameless Guy’s life would even care if he ceased to exist. I also wondered if the threats were real: did any of those threateners really care enough to want to end Nameless Guy’s existence? It’s unclear, particularly given that this century’s superfluous men learn of death threats through virtual seconds who use computers and smart phones instead of personal visits.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ganieva’s Salam, Dalgat! & The Debut Prize Tour Comes to Boston

Alisa Ganieva’s Салам тебе, Далгат! (Salam, Dalgat! in Nicholas Allen’s translation), winner of the 2009 Debut Prize for long prose, is a wonderful example of fiction where form and content complement one other, creating a harmonious, readable work that has more depth than you might initially feel or see. (Regular visitors to the Bookshelf know this is my favorite kind of fiction…) Ganieva’s long story describes a day in the life of Dalgat, a young man who travels around Makhachkala, Dagestan, on a mission to find a relative, Khalilbek.

Salam, Dalgat! opens at a market, among soaps, shampoos, henna packets, raspberries, grape bunches, pomegranates, sad-looking kittens, and sellers’ pitches… and closes hours later, after Dalgat has, among other things, experienced a minor mugging, sat for a bit in a café, and witnessed such events as a literary ceremony and a shooting at a wedding. Ganieva moves Dalgat—and the vignettes that accumulate to form a plot and collective portrait of a time and place—at a brisk but rational pace, weaving in language as varied, colorful, and juicy as the market goods on the story’s first pages.
I found Salam, Dalgat! particularly interesting because Ganieva also works in cultural observations of what she calls a “troublesome” place: young women discuss clothing, men discuss Islam, and a female friend of Dalgat’s discusses her plans to relocate to St. Petersburg. With its mixture of humor, tradition (wife stealing even gets a mention, though a character says that’s a Chechen habit), and a sense of alarm about the future, Salam, Dalgat! felt unusually energetic and organic, all as poor Dalgat, seeking but never quite managing to find, trots along, a perfectly agreeable, generally patient, nearly blank slate of a character, the ideal figure for a reader like me, who’s never been to Makhachkala, to follow.
I should note that Ganieva submitted Salam, Dalgat! to Debut under a male pseudonym, Gulla Khirachev, because Dagestani women aren’t supposed to move around in public as freely as men… or write about what happens on the street. Based on her comments about reactions to the story, it sounds like Ganieva succeeded in inspiring social discussion with Salam, Dalgat!
I enjoyed the social aspect of Salam, Dalgat! but, given my readerly biases, wouldn’t rate the story so highly if I didn’t think it was nicely composed, falling into a category of writing that writer Olga Slavnikova mentioned during a Debut Prize event in Boston last Wednesday evening: “физически сильный текст,” a “physically strong text” or “physically sound text.” Slavnikova, who serves as director of Debut, used the term (which she borrowed from a critic) to describe the work of Debut winners and finalists. I’m sure sound texts are a big reason so many Debut writers continue to find success: works by Ganieva and Irina Bogatyreva, who was also in Boston, were nominated for this year’s National Bestseller award.
Bogatyreva’s Товарищ Анна (Comrade Anna), the title story of the collection on the NatsBest longlist, was also shortlisted for the Belkin Prize. I’m very much looking forward to reading Comrade Anna: I’m interested in Bogatyreva’s take on patriotic youth, particularly after enjoying hearing her read from her stories of hitchhiking. (The 2012 Belkin, BTW, went to Aleksei Kozlachkov for Запах искусственнойсвежести (The Scent of Artificial Freshness).)
The other two writers visiting Boston—Dmitry Biryukov, who won Debut’s journalism award in 2005, and Igor Savelyev, whose Бледный город (Pale City), a long story about hitchhiking, apparently has quite a cult following—were also fun to hear. Biryukov and Savelyev both work days as journalists, and both continue to write outside work. Both also continue to read and value Russian “thick journals”; the panel’s consensus was that journals retain an important, prestigious place in Russian literary life, despite diminished circulation figures. Biryukov is working on a novel; the excerpt I heard from his story Улица Урицкого (Uritsky Street) had a nice retro feel. The narrative voice of Savelyev’s Pale City, which was published in the journal Novyi mir in 2004 and made the Belkin Prize shortlist that year, is invitingly chatty.
I’m sure I’ll be writing more about these and other Debut writers, and not just because a delegation of Debut winners and shortlisters will be at BookExpo America in June. I have books from several other “Debutnik” winners and finalists—including Sergei Shargunov and Natal’ia Kluchareva—on my shelf, waiting.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shulpyakov’s Fez: It’s in the Head, Not on the Head

Fez isn't about a hat.

First, a bit on expectations: Gleb Shulpyakov’s Фес (Fez) isn’t about cylindrical red hats with tassels, though Fez’s part-time narrator does cover his head with a fez at one point in the book. And Fez doesn’t seem to take place in Fez, Morocco. But who knows? The most important exotica here—despite mentions of specific places like Moscow and Vienna—is abstract and spiritual, a place in the consciousness.
A summary of this short, novelesque work with a broken narrative might start with something like this: An unnamed Moscow publisher with business troubles takes his wife to the birth house, goes home, and somehow ends up a prisoner in a basement in an unidentified place. A place one might think is Fez.
Those of you who watch my “Up Next” notes may have observed that my own journey with Fez zigged and zagged: I first found the book oddly beguiling (or beguilingly odd) then hit a slow patch then thought Fez was shaping up then concluded by considering it a “a somewhat disappointing up-and-down experience.” Looking back today, I’d edit out the “somewhat.”
Fez’s allegory of unnamed man’s journey to rebirth, which occurs roughly simultaneously with the birth of his child, had lots of potential—he’s a prisoner, he escapes, he seems to be in a boat with a Charon-like guy, he reflects on his life, he meets a woman and they talk about freedom, and he comes to terms with what’s happening—but I thought the book’s end message felt too usual, too expected, too close to hokey, particularly because most of Fez seemed intentionally cryptic. And Shulpyakov didn’t win many points from me for his inclusions of dreamy states, doors leading to new lives that avoid former emptiness and constraints, and eastern themes. These are elements I’ve seen a lot, elements that are only interesting if a writer gives them unexpected angles.
Shulpyakov sometimes manages to do that: he’s also a poet, and his uses of language and imagery were the biggest positives in Fez. Small highlights included a memory of a Soviet-era building in Minsk, self-deprecating humor, and a lovely vision of morning lights. But there weren’t nearly enough of those moments to perk up all the familiar material, especially since the literary devices in Fez—which contains sections with first-person and third-person narrative, chronicle-like passages, a few pages in what appears to be Arabic (I have no idea if it’s a logical text), and a page with only lines of dots/periods (an excerpt: “………………………….”)—struck me as self-conscious attempts at creating something postmodern rather than ways to add true depth, wisdom, or intellectual excitement to the book.
My primary impression of Fez is that I went into the book thinking it sounded like yet another parallel reality novel, which it is on a certain level, and came out of Fez reminded of commenter Alex’s mention of “stories about careworn middle-aged Russian men finding satori” in the comments about my post on Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Happiness Is Possible. I think I’d recommend Fez most to readers who have much more patience than I with the combination of spiritual material and literary devices that Shulpyakov employs. Fez just isn’t my kind of book but, to be fair, Shulpyakov’s Web site displays positive critical reviews, some of which contain gargantuan spoilers.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

National Bestseller’s 2012 Longlist

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Awards, Awards, Awards + Events

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Few of Max Frei’s Echo Stories

Writing about a few medium-length stories from Max Frei’s Labyrinths of Echo books feels like breaking my own unwritten blogging rules: I rarely write about books I haven’t finished, and I rarely write about books I read over long stretches of time. In this case, I think “long” means two years, meaning my memory of the first three stories has faded. A lot.
But there are extenuating circumstances: I read two more stories this month and Frei, whose real name is Svetlana Martynchik, has written a giant stack of Echo books that I’m unlikely to read and finish within the next year or two or three. Plus two volumes of English-language translations exist and a third is coming soon. Volume one, The Stranger, contains the first seven stories. Though I have no desire to read a crate of Echo books volume after volume, I’ve enjoyed a few stories at a time and will certainly read more…
The five Echo stories that I read fall into a fuzzy genre of fantasy that combines cozy with sinister: a first-person narrator named Max describes his new life in a world called Echo. Max tells us in an introduction that Echo doesn’t exist on any map but the city is the capital of the United Kingdom of such places as Uguland, Landaland, and Uruland. Residents perform magic at varying levels of ability, and Max works as nocturnal representative of the most venerable head of Echo’s Minor Secret Investigative Force, which solves crimes. (I’ve taken translations of titles and lines from the book from Polly Gannon's translation,visible through Look Inside! on Amazon.com.)
Though the Echo stories begin with Max telling about his earthly difficulties getting to sleep at night, it’s only a few stories later that we learn the particulars of how Max’s boss, a Sir Juffin Hully—Echo sounds like a rather title-happy place—brought him to Echo, where Max is passed off as a clueless guy from the sticks to explain away his social ineptness. It didn’t take much to bring Max to Echo: Max first meets Sir Juffin in a dream, then makes the dream a reality (of sorts). Max’s dream life is pretty rich, and I scribbled “lucid dream” several times during my reading. All those foggy lines between dreams and reality brought me back to recent reading, like Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect” (previous post) and Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
As I mentioned above, Max’s stories combine cozy and sinister. Frei juxtaposes humorous names and fanciful objects with, for example, a serial killer case. And Frei’s cast of characters loves drinking a beverage, apparently caffeinated, called kamra; Max says an establishment known as Обжора Бунба, which Gannon calls the Glutton Bunba, serves the best kamra in Echo. Gluttony for food and glory leads to particularly strange and nasty consequences in “Король Банджи” (“King Banjee”), in which a woman reports that her husband has turned into a (rather large) piece of meat with a distinctive smell. Soup has oddities, too.
I think the Echo stories appealed to me for their blend of earth-bound fears with out-of-this-world oddities. Then there’s all that Max and I have in common: a preference for night, the need for kamra, and, yes, a deep love of sleep. I’m certainly not a dangerous type like Max, though: Lady Melamori, whom Max fancies, feels he exudes some sort of threat. Two other things: though I enjoy cooking, Echo’s quick food delivery appeals to me, particularly since places like Glutton Bunba bring food nearly instantaneously after receipt of a mind message. Finally, I love that in Echo there are many bathtubs but no TV… but I certainly appreciated Max’s reference to Twin Peaks, in which he thinks about what he would have done had he been agent Cooper.
For more: Robert Thompson on Fantasy Book Critic offers lots more detail on the Echo stories in The Stranger.
Level for non-native readers of English: 3.5 out of 5.00, though I think my biggest language-related problem was sorting through all the Echo vocabulary. I admit I have a hard time keeping track of character names in all languages. 
Up Next: NOSE prize winners. Gleb Shulpyakov’s Фес (Fez), an oddly beguiling (or beguilingly odd?) NOSE finalist that friends just brought back from Moscow for me. [Update on 1/31/2012: I just checked the NOSE site for the award calendar and found that Fez was taken off the shortlist... a quick check of comments on OpenSpace.ru's news story showed that Fez was an on-again-off-again shortlister.] And more St. Petersburg…
Disclosures: The usual. I always enjoy talking with Overlook Press, which published English-language translations of Max Frei’s books. And yes, the link to Amazon is connected with my affiliate account. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Freedom’s Just Another Word: Ivan D.’s Big Liberty

Publisher Ad Marginem’s “autobiographical novel” description on the back of Dmitrii Dobrodeev’s Большая svoboda Ивана Д. (Ivan D.’s Big Liberty) feels utterly superfluous: with many dateline-ish chapter starts, real-life figures, and historical events worked into the story of a man who leaves the Soviet Union, first for Hungary, then for West Germany, the book has the feel of a documentary novel that could only have been written by someone who lived “it.” Which Dobrodeev has done, living in Germany and the Czech Republic since 1989. And Dobrodeev, like Ivan D., worked at Radio Liberty. Dobrodeev said in an interview with Echo of Moscow that about 90 percent of the book is true, with a “documentary basis,” and that he included his own experiences in his Ivan D., a composite figure for his generation.
I’ve written more than once that I’m not a fan of finding real people in contemporary fiction… but Dobrodeev somehow makes the device work, including people like 1991 coup plotter Genadii Yanaev, a pre-LDPR Vladimir Zhirnivoskii, and journalist Andrei Babitskii in Ivan D. Honestly, I’m surprised the book worked for me at all: it’s told in very spare, nearly affectless language and combines a good dose of abstraction (условность) with its facts. Still, Ivan D. is that odd case of a book that fascinated even when it was a crashing bore. Perhaps that’s what Dobrodeev intended: life west of the old Iron Curtain may sound romantic or exciting, particularly when spy agencies are involved and there’s freedom, but it can also be pretty dull. Emigration, we’re told, isn’t развлечение; the old cliché “fun and games” works well here.
Ivan D. is a man with mixed feelings about the Soviet Union. He hates that he was невыездной (not allowed to travel) for years, unable to use his talents, and living in relative poverty. But he also dislikes the changes of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which he thinks demean Russia’s history. Toward the end of the book Ivan D. visits Moscow as a Radio Liberty correspondent during the events of October 1993, seeing the Russian White House after it was bombed by the government. He comes away thinking what happened was грязно, dirty, and that it marks the end of historical Russia. At least the Soviet Union valued brotherhood and solidarity.
Ivan D.’s stated preference is for personal freedom, something he takes advantage of in his life in Germany after (of course!) he’s spent time in a remote location offering analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union to the German government. Ivan D. also hears Russian writers read (Vladimir Sorokin and Viktor Erofeev are among those mentioned), has odd dreams that probably indicate his freest thoughts, and eventually moves in with a Russian woman. They live like, well, libertines, with lots of alcohol and rumors of orgies. Their lifestyle is a magnification of norms at their workplace; that Radio Liberty group is quite a bunch.
Throughout all this, Ivan sometimes feels his self (“я”) disintegrating and he has a tendency to forget who he is and where he’s from. He’s also disturbed when a veteran co-worker from the station is buried in Germany, among alien souls (“среди чужих душ”). Ivan doesn’t feel right anywhere, though a reunion with his wife in his old Moscow apartment at the end of the book gives him the chance to see his daughter and smell old smells. In some ways, I think Ivan D. feels freest there. The book’s chapters end with a vibe of “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Dobrodeev clinches that by supplementing the chapters with a few addenda, Radio Liberty correspondence about Ivan D. Indeed, the more things change the more they stay the same.
I’m not sure how much I liked Ivan D.’s Big Liberty—Dobrodeev’s style isn’t a favorite but I appreciate his portrayals of people and a time and think he combines abstraction and concreteness to very good effect—and I would only recommend it with the caution that it’s a rather peculiar book that’s not likely to appeal to everyone. (Of course I could say that about just about everything I read but I won’t expand on that right now…)
All that said, the novel was an interesting counterpoint to my own experiences during the era, when I traveled to Russia and eventually moved there: I heard the bombing of the Russian White House in October ’93 and complaints from people who wanted firmer control than Yeltsin’s. As I wrote this post, I realized that the book probably succeeded for me more than I initially thought. Dobrodeev’s story about an abstract, albeit self-referential, Ivan without a country manages to convey a lot about the sad and sometimes humorous messiness and contradictions of cultural, political, and personal freedoms during and directly after the fall of the Soviet Union.
For more: Ad Marginem has links to reviews.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year & Reading Highlights from 2011

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I hope 2012 bring you plenty of fun and absorbing Russian books to read, no matter what language you read in. Before we finish with 2011, I thought I’d write up a quick list of books I particularly enjoyed during the year:
Favorite book. I can’t decide on just one favorite, so I’ll name two, listing them alphabetically by author surname: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s The Interpreter (previous post) and Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair (previous post). Both books felt especially exuberant, with lively voices and structures, and subject matter that’s difficult to summarize. I think this must have been my year for books of this type: I also loved Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, which I read in Ross Benjamin’s German-to-English translation (post on my other blog).
Favorite newer release. I didn’t do so well with books released during late 2010 or 2011—an unusually high number of the year’s Big Book finalists were clunkers for me—but I did enjoy Iurii Buida’s Blue Blood (previous post) once I got past the first 50 pages and got used to Buida’s patterns. The book may be too quirky or collage-like (to borrow from Alexander Anichkin’s comment) for some readers but something (?) managed to win me over.
Favorite “what’s old is new” work. Andrei Platonov’s Juvenile Sea, sometimes Sea of Youth, (previous post) still rings in my mind… it’s probably those pumpkin sleeping pods. I think it’s safe to say that Platonov is my favorite writer who must be read slowly; I seem to read every paragraph at least twice. I love how Platonov arranges his words.
Favorite discovery. A few of Fazil’ Iskander’s Chik stories (previous post) and a novella (previous post) were enough to give me a new favorite writer whose stories I want to ration and read over time. I particularly love Iskander’s gentle humor and his ability to portray the everyday injustices of Soviet life.
Favorite work of nonfiction. I only read a few books of nonfiction this year but Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Human Soul: The Grandiose Propaganda of Stalin’s Russia (previous post), translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, was my kind of book, thanks to its combination of socialist realism and irrigation in the Soviet Union.
Travel. Book-related travel was a treat, a big highlight of 2011: I met a lot of you at the London Book Fair, BookExpo America, and the American Literary Translators Association Conference. I hope to see and meet more of you in 2012, particularly given the market focus on Russia at BookExpo America—I’ve already been excited about BEA 2012 for over a year! I’m sure I’ll be writing more about BEA when details are available.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Benigsen’s Rayad and Krzhizhanovsky’s Letter Killers

My last two book commentaries for the year—about Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Rayad) and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club)—feel all too typical of my reading in 2011, a year when I abandoned many books and finished others without particular enthusiasm. In this case, I finished both books but neither gave me quite the kick I might have hoped for…
Rayad, a novel about contemporary Moscow, borrows heavily from the detective genre: Benigsen begins with the murder of a man in a moviehouse then shows us an investigation carried out by a recent widower, Kostya. Kostya and his young daughter go to live in a clean, orderly, and slightly creepy all-Russian neighborhood in Moscow, where Kostya quickly meets Gremlin, the alleged perpetrator, a nationalist. Benigsen works in a series of faux historical letters, including one from V.I. Lenin himself, about Rayads, an invented nomadic tribe who once lived in Kostya’s new neighborhood. Of course corruption makes an appearance, too.
Rayad is competently composed and constructed, and it addresses timely sociocultural and sociopolitical issues, but I think Benigsen missed a chance to write a truly important book, a book that makes readers feel deeply uncomfortable. Though there’s a nasty scene on a train with Gremlin and his gang, it’s physical violence and we don’t know the victim. To my mind, the problem with Rayad is that Benigsen doesn’t go nearly far enough in exploring the psychology of nationalism in a way that would encourage readers to (re)examine their own beliefs.
Worse, Rayad’s characters and plot developments feel formulaic. Kostya’s family is half military and half intelligentsia, his new neighbor has problems because he’s not pure Russian, a neighborhood woman resembles Kostya’s dead wife, and so on. The term “Rayad” is particularly obvious because it sounds like an amalgam of the words for heaven and hell. By contrast, Benigsen’s ГенАцид (GenAcide) (previous post) is funnier, sharper, and more literary. Rayad reminded me of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, where Perrotta also failed this picky reader by backing away from an opportunity to write an important book; The Leftovers, too, lacked enough narrative tension and social spark to inspire introspection, rendering it mediocre “stuff.”
Nearly a century earlier, Krzhizhanovsky put literary tropes to use in The Letter Killers Club, a novella of sorts. Krzhizhanovsky frames five stories, setting them up by describing an apartment and the host of a club where members, each known by a monosyllabic nickname, recite stories from memory. I don’t want to spill many details but I’ll say that the leader, a writer, composed his books after having to sell all his books; he imagined his books and the letters on the pages, rearranging them to occupy emptiness. He says writers are “professional word tamers” (“профессиональные дрессировщики слов). (The English phrase is from Joanne Turnbull’s translation, which you can look inside on Amazon.)
I think my biggest difficulty with The Letter Killers Club is that I, a bit like the narrator, who’s an invited guest at the meetings, was more interested in buttonholing club members for a chat than in listening to their stories. More frustrating, the first tale, a playlet with characters from Hamlet and the eternal question and implications of “to be or not to be,” interested me far more than the remaining four, despite the appearance of my beloved carnival themes and an interesting science fiction take on mind control. Some of the stories just felt too long.
I think the most intriguing aspect of The Letter Killers Club stems from the opening scene, where Hermann Ebbinghaus is referred to as “мнемолог,” a mnemologist. The story and my book’s endnotes also mention Ebbinghaus’s use of “бессмысленные слоги” (“nonsense syllables”) in his research; Krzhizhanovsky’s club’s host uses Ebbinghaus’s term to refer to club members’ nicknames. Ebbinghaus used nonsense syllables in his research to remove associations with real words.
Of course associations develop, both in memory research and in the story: storytellers occasionally even borrow fellow club members’ nicknames for their characters, just as they, like their leader, borrow and reshuffle letters, syllables, and motifs from world languages and literatures. All the club’s storytelling (well, most of, but I won’t go into that) is from memory, playing on mnemonics; I have to think archetypes must have been helpful devices, too. (Festival of the Ass, anyone?) The Letter Killers Club gave my addled brain lots to think about last week when I had a nasty cold: my dreamy, floaty head probably got me further than a clear head could have.
I still have hundreds more pages to try in my collection of Krzhizhanovsky stories and novellas; despite the disappointment of The Letter Killers Club, I’m looking forward to reading more. I have the feeling (or at least the hope!) Krzhizhanovsky may be the kind of writer whose work takes time and patience, that ideas may seep from story to story, eventually accumulating in a way that begins to form a world or worldview. Joanne Turnbull’s translation of The Letter Killers Club, with an introduction by Caryl Emerson, is a recent release from New York Review Books.
P.S. Here are links to some pieces, most with more enthusiastic opinions than mine, that contain far more details about Krzhizhanovsky and The Letter Killers Club. Just watch out for all those details: I think the unexpectedness of the novella is one of its real virtues, so I was glad I knew almost nothing about it when I read.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Andrei Bely Prize Award Winners & Some Links

I’m about a week late and a ruble short on this one but want to mention winners of the Andrei Bely prize. Nikolai Baitov won the prose award for Думай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak or maybe Think Before You Speak), a collection of short stories. The poetry award went to Andrei Poliakov’s Китайский десант (Parenthetical information edited: please see comments... I’ll call this Chinese Landing Force, though an online bookstore calls it Chinese Descent. This title is (of course!) complicated since десант is usually a military landing or the troops who make them. I’m equally uninformed about these terms in English and Russian so suggestions are welcome.). Information on other Bely awards is available here. Just one of my rubles would endow this prize: that’s the value of the entire fund.
Bonus! Baitov is also a poet; some of his poems are available online in Jim Kates’s translations (Cardinal Points) (Jacket).
I learned about another award winner just before posting: John Woodsworth and Arkadi Klioutchanski won the Modern Language Association’s Lois Roth Award for a Translation of a Literary Work for their translation of Sofia Tolstaya’s My Life, published by the University of Ottawa Press. Woodsworth and Klioutchanski are both affiliated with the University of Ottawa. (press release) Thanks to the American Literary Translators Association for mentioning the award on Facebook.
I’ve run across a wealth of articles about Russian literature lately. Here are links to a few:
I always enjoy reading Russian Dinosaur’s blog but the two most recent posts were particularly engaging: the Dinosaur’s thoughts about The Collaborators, John Hodge’s new play about Mikhail Bulgakov, and a wonderful piece on a talk that Oliver Ready gave about translation. Oliver offered examples from Crime and Punishment, which he is translating, and the Dinosaur included one of the sentences, in the original and four translations. The blog called XIX век then followed with two related posts (here) and (here). XIX век is, by the way, written in English.
Last week Stephen Dodson, perhaps better known as Languagehat, opened the “A Year in Reading” series for The Millions with a post about Life and Fate. Life and Fate received more attention this week, through a review by Adam Kirsch on The New Republic’s site; the piece first appeared in Tablet. Also: The Quarterly Conversation published Malcolm Forbes’s essay about Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (in David McDuff’s translation); I still need to print this piece out so I can read it properly. (I also need to push Petersburg forward on my bookshelf… I’ve been intending to reread it for years.) Finally, Scott Esposito’s review of Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of Singing Caryatids, translated by Andrew Bromfield and recently released by New Directions, appeared on The National’s site.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Booker of the Decade Goes to Chudakov

The winner of the Russian Booker of the Decade was announced today: Aleksandr Chudakov won, posthumously, for Ложится мгла на старые ступени... (beginning) (end) (A Gloom Is Cast Upon the Ancient Steps). Время/Vremia, a Russian publisher, wrote on Facebook today that they are preparing the book for publication. The novel was a Booker finalist in 2001.
Rather than attempting to summarize yet another book I haven’t read, I’ll just say that the beginning of the book has been translated, by Timothy D. Sergay, who received a PEN Translation Fund grant and a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support his work. Chapter 1 is available (here) on Words Without Borders and Chapter 2 is online (here) on the PEN American Center site.
It’s been quite a week (a good one!) so I haven’t had much time to look at reactions to the award but I’ll add some links and thoughts over the weekend.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

At the Heart of Buida’s Blue Blood

Iurii Buida’s latest novel, Синяя кровь (Blue Blood), is so filled with literary allusions, peculiar characters, and odd happenings that the book took some getting used to: on the first page, for example, a fly-catching elderly actress with the not-so-common name Ida gets up when the clock rings three in Africa. All this in a Russian town called Chudov, a name a little longer than чудо (miracle or wonder) and a little shorter than чудовище (monster). I’m glad the book and I came to terms after about 50 pages. Once I settled into Blue Blood, it became, by far, my favorite among this year’s Big Book Award finalists (previous post). I’ve read (or attempted to read) all the books on the list, though have yet to give Dmitrii Bykov’s Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) the real college try.
Africa, it turns out, is the name of the building where Ida lives: it was formerly the bordello known as Тело и дело—two rhyming words that mean body and deed—where Ida’s mother worked. Ida’s nephew, whom she calls Friday, narrates the book, telling stories about Ida, whom Buida based on actress Valentina Karavaeva. Meaning Blue Blood is a fictionalized, quirkily embroidered biography of Karavaeva filtered through a (fictional?) character’s childhood and adult observations. The nickname Friday, by the way, is just one piece of a series of references to Robinson Crusoe; Kirill Glikman’s review on OpenSpace.ru focuses on that element of Blue Blood.
“Actress” sounds glamorous but Ida’s life is filled with pain: a brief marriage to an Englishman, an accident that ruins her film career by making her face look like a broken plate, the Stalinist repression, and the sudden appearance of a former husband’s wife and child. As Ida likes to say, “От счастья толстеют.” – “Happiness makes you fat.” She eats little and smokes 10 cigarettes a day, something memorable because of Friday’s habit of repeating lists of objects important to characters. Here, Glikman recognizes something from Robinson Crusoe (which I haven’t read) but Friday’s tic reminded me of repetition in fairy tales, particularly given the proximity of characters with names like Baba Zha. Blue Blood also contains dark, Soviet-era transformations of fairy tale elements identified by Vladimir Propp. Among them: Ida leaves home, returns home, handles numerous difficult tasks, and marries. There is villainy on many levels, and there is even a kiss (from a general, no less) worthy of the one that awoke Sleeping Beauty.
Buida also works in references to higher literature. Dostoevsky stood out for me, perhaps in part because I’ve been reading Netochka Nezvanova: one night I read from both books, and a chapter in each ended with a cliffhanger involving fainting. Beyond that, Buida offers a mention of people униженные и оскорбленные (often translated as humiliated and insulted), a child called Grushen’ka, and a character likened to a Dostoevskian pleasure-seeker. Beyond Dostoevsky, Ida plays Nina Zarechnaia in Chekhov’s Seagull. The name Zarechnaia (on the other side of the river), certainly suits Ida, who is clearly her own person, her own myth. One more: Ida recites Romeo and Juliet for hospital patients, improvising as needed, thus emphasizing characters’ storytelling powers as she tells of tragedy and suffering, something she says benefits those who come after us… I read this in a broad context—the family of all humanity—since Ida is childless and Buida populates his novel with orphans and broken families.
The metaphor of blue blood also flows through the novel: in short, Ida’s actress friend Serafima tells her red blood is hot and makes the head spin with ideas, but cooler blue blood is a more controlled, self-possessed mastery, “Страшный Суд художника над самим собой”—an artist’s self-imposed Judgment Day—something Serafima says is both a gift and a curse. It can freeze.
Buida’s novel is also a gift and a curse, though it’s my favorite kind of literary curse, a book that contains so much to consider, feel, and cross-reference that it doesn’t let me go or lend itself to quick analysis. The long list of big topics I’ve left uncovered includes death (e.g. Ida’s work with girls who release doves at funerals), purpose in life, a touch of something gothic, Chudov’s “Pavlov’s Dog” café, nightmares, and acting, which has subtopics like mimesis and a list of Ida’s various names and roles. Ida’s roles include parts she plays in her personal home movie archive as well as “Ida,” a name she selects for herself as a child instead of going through life as Tanya.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Booker of the Decade & Bely 2011 Short Lists

Today was a big day for Russian book award short lists… Here are two quick bleary-eyed, late-evening lists [with a few next-morning edits]:
First, the Russian Booker of the Decade, for which a huge panel of past judges chose five books out of the 60 that were shortlisted over the past 10 years. The winner will be announced on December 1. The five finalists, in Russian alphabetical order, are:
  • Oleg PavlovКарагандинские девятины, или Повесть последних дней (A Ninth-Day Wake/Party at Karaganda or A Story of Recent Days/Commemoration in Karaganda). This is the third book in the trilogy that begins with Казенная сказка (A Barracks Tale), which I wrote about here. Pavlov’s novel is the only book on the list that has won a Booker.
  • Zakhar PrilepinСанькя (San’kya), which I wrote about here. I have a strong preference for Prilepin’s Грех, (Sin) (previous post), which won the SuperNatsBest earlier this year, but San’kya has often been cited for its political significance.
  • Roman SenchinЕлтышевы (1) (2) (The Yeltyshevs) (previous post), one of my favorite books of recent years [one I’d like to translate], a novel that was short-listed for everything but hasn’t won an award.
  • Liudmila UlitskayaДаниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) won the Big Book award a few years ago. I enjoyed the book very much when I read it several years ago (previous post). Daniel Stein came out in translation, from Overlook Press, earlier this year.
  • Aleksandr ChudakovЛожится мгла на старые ступени... (beginning) (end) (A Gloom Is Cast Upon the Ancient Steps), a complete mystery to me. Words Without Borders describes the book as a “memoiristic novel” and says Chudakov wrote “widely admired memoirs of such leading Russian literary scholars as Viktor Shklovsky, Viktor Vinogradov, and Lidia Ginzburg,” plus five books and a couple hundred articles.
Now for the Andrei Bely prize short list, for which winners will be announced on December 2… fortunately there is overlap with the NOSE long list, so I can copy and paste a few of these.
  • Nikolai BaitovДумай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak). Short stories (41 in 320 pages) from a poet.
  • Igor GolubentsevТочка Цзе (Not sure… The Tsze Spot, The Tsze Point, Sharpening Tsze? [see first comment, from languagehat]), apparently a collection of very short stories.
  • Vladimir Mikhailov Русский садизм (Russian Sadism). ?
  • Aleksandr MarkinДневник. 2006-2011 (Diary 2006-2011), Live Journal posts from Russia’s first LJ blogger, who has interests in German literature and European architecture.
  • Denis OsokinОвсянки (Yellowhammers), a novella that has already been made into a film known in English as Silent Souls.
  • Pavel PeppersteinПражская ночь (Prague Night). I know more (but still not much!) about Pepperstein as a conceptualist artist and founder of “Inspection ‘Medical Hermeneutics’” than as a writer. A friend did mention enjoying Prague Night, though.
  • Мария Рыбакова -- Гнедич (Gnedich), a novel in verse about Russian poet Nikolai Gnedich, the first Russian translator of The Iliad. Rybakova is also a poet. Excerpt
The Andrei Bely award also recognizes other types of writing, including poetry and humanitarian research. I’m especially excited about the poetry category this time – the nominees are Polina Barskova, Alla Gorbunova, Vladimir Ermolaev, Vasilii Lomakin, Andrei Poliakov, Aleksei Porvin, and Ilya Rissenberg – because I met Polina Barskova at a wonderful poetry translation conference here in Maine last weekend. The title poem from her nominated collection, Сообщения Ариэля (Ariel’s Message), is available in translation here on Cardinal Points, and OpenSpace.ru has a video of Polina reading another poem (Соучастие (scroll down for text)). Even if you don’t understand Russian, it’s worth clicking through just to hear Polina’s voice and watch her expressions.
P.S. November 9, 2011: Melville House has a nice post on Polina Barskova that mentions her collections that have been translated into English plus some colorful background on the Bely Prize.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Totally: Novellas by Chukovskaya and Iskander

I first read Lydia Chukovskaya’s Софья Петровна (Sofia Petrovna) in the early ‘90s, when I lived in Moscow: it was one of six pieces in a collection called Трудные повести (Difficult Novellas) that also included Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit). My reading skills weren’t ready for Platonov then but I could read and appreciate Sofia Petrovna quickly, easily, without a dictionary. The novella was even more satisfying because I could tell Chukovskaya’s direct, unembellished language was the perfect medium for a story about a Leningrad widow whose son Kolya, an engineer, is arrested in the 1930s.
I appreciated Sofia Petrovna even more this time around, watching Chukovskaya unwind the story of Sofia Petrovna, a loyal Soviet citizen who becomes more and more unhinged trying to handle difficulties at work and the cruelly impossible task of finding her son. Chukovskaya experienced similar humiliations—she wrote the novella during November 1939-February 1940, after the arrest of her husband, which makes it even more remarkable—and demonstrates the effects of totalitarianism with painfully striking precision.
I’m thinking of totalitarianism in the second definition in my Webster’s New [sic: it’s dated 1981] Collegiate Dictionary—“the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority”—more than the first definition’s “centralized control by an autocratic authority” that creates the political concept. Chukovskaya’s novella is less about the system itself than its effects on the thinking and actions of regular people, represented by a circle of family and friends anchored by Sofia Petrovna. The book draws the reader into her psyche as Soviet life wears her down.
We hear Sofia Petrovna’s doubts about Kolya’s activity and friendships, experience her pain when her communal apartment neighbors say nasty things, and feel her deflation when she has brief audiences with government officials after waiting for hours, even days. As the novella continues and we witness her evolution from a happy, optimistic publishing house administrator to a recluse who barely eats, it’s not difficult to understand her confusion, her delusions, or her fears of everybody.
After Chukovskaya’s book I picked up a collection by Fazil’ Iskander and chose Сумрачной юности свет (The Light of Murky Youth) for one reason: at 75 pages, it was the longest piece in the book. I didn’t know the story was about an Abkhaz man, Zaur, whose father was shot during the Stalinist terror. Most of the story takes place when Zaur is an adult—there are mentions of Khrushchev—and the most vivid aspect of the story for me, perhaps because of my lingering thoughts on Sofia Petrovna, was the uneasy balance of private and public in Zaur’s life. That made the story feel like a later generation’s update on totalitarianism.
Iskander gives Zaur a childhood with public Stalin portraits and an adulthood that values privacy and individuality, whether he’s writing to the Central Committee about the need for more private farming or trying to find a place to be alone with his girlfriend. Though Iskander deftly blends believable characters with lots of telling episodes about required volunteer work, sneaking into forbidden places, police behavior, family pressures, and politics, the story felt a little lumpy to me. But that’s a minor complaint, what with the strong pull of the conflict between control and privacy (always a favorite), and Iskander’s ability to, like Chukovskaya, create vivid scenes, portraits, and stories out of simple words and complex human situations.

Monday, October 3, 2011

2011 Yasnaya Polyana Awards

Winners of the Yasnaya Polyana Awards were announced today. Fazil’ Iskander received the “Contemporary Classic” prize for his three-volume Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem). Sandro of Chegem was a popular book among NOS-1973’s online voters earlier this year. Perhaps this is the sign I need to finally buy and read Sandro after enjoying some of Iskander’s Chik stories earlier this year (previous post).
Elena Katishonok won the “XXI Century” prize for Жили-были старик со старухой (Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife) (excerpt); Katishonok’s novel was a 2009 Russian Booker finalist.
At least some of Sandro of Chegem is available in translation, as are Iskander’s Chik stories. A description on Amazon.com says Katishonok’s book is a family saga about Russian Orthodox Old Believers set in the first half of the twentieth century.
Жили-были старик со старухой on Amazon

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Universal Solvent: Kuznetsov’s The Circle Dance of Water

I felt like I should cue up Sister Sledge singing “We Are Family” (here’s the Oprah version) when I finished Sergei Kuznetsov’s Хоровод воды (The Circle Dance of Water): Kuznetsov’s novel is a family saga, an ode to family ties and history that examines birth, aging, flaws, and fear of death. Circle Dance is a 2011 Big Book prize finalist, and Kuznetsov’s readable tale of multiple generations in an extended family is big indeed, both in size, at 600 pages, and century-long scope, with family members who include a female sniper in World War 2, an NKVD agent, and an alcoholic artist. Thank goodness the book had a family tree.
Though I think The Circle Dance of Water is probably the most enjoyable of the seven Big Book finalists I’ve attempted so far this year, I also think it’s deeply flawed. Kuznetsov’s water theme, for example, expands to kitschy tidal wave proportions by the end of the book, thanks to an overdose of, yes, mysticism. In the beginning, though, the water theme flows smoothly through the lives of three main characters living in 21st-century Moscow. Nikita is a businessman with a custom aquarium business who is having an affair and a mid-life crisis but loves his depressed wife. Anya (née Elvira) is a shoe saleswoman and single mother who loves to swim. And Moreukhov is a formerly fashionable artist who goes on benders drinking alcoholic liquids.
I think Kuznetsov is at his best observing the lives of his contemporary characters. Nikita, for example, remembers having no money, when buying Danone yogurt made everybody happy. Now it’s caviar and Paris. In another scene, Dasha, Nikita’s much-younger mistress, looks at Nikita through the aquarium he built for her to decorate the apartment he rents for her. Nikita, with double chin and circles under his eyes, looks like a fish. And though I think Kuznetsov makes too much of Moreukhov’s obsession with movies, his choice of genre for his life, film noir, is absolutely fitting, even touching. With his heavy drinking, Moreukhov is a literary descendent of drinkers like Venedikt Erofeev’s Venya in Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line) and Vladimir Makanin’s Petrovich in Андеграунд (Underground) (previous post), among others.
As an artist and storyteller who values ancestry and the past, Moreukhov, who also happens to be Nikita’s half-brother thanks to an extra-marital relationship, represents artistic representation and license. To Moreukhov, film conveys the feel of other times, blending art and life… making it a logical next step for Moreukhov to generate stories about various generations of family members. Moreukhov is only one of Kuznetsov’s narrators, and Kuznetsov sometimes hands storytelling duty from one character to another on quick notice. This is far less confusing than it probably sounds, particularly if you’re warned. Kuznetsov also connects individual chapters, characters, and eras with common objects or gestures, such as entwined hands.
Kuznetsov works lots, lots more into The Circle Dance of Water: creatures from beyond, orphaned characters, single mothers, religion, fears of aging and commitment and death and water, reincarnation, bodily fluids, literary references, and so on and so forth. Kuznetsov handles lots of this material with considerable grace, energy, and emotion, so I was very disappointed--and almost a little shocked--to find that he ties everything up neatly, first with a chapter of new agey sacrifices, then with an epilogue that includes a chapter called “Хеппи-энд” (“Happy Ending”). It is the 107th of 108 chapters, apparently referencing the number of defilements in Buddhism. (I’m glad literary agency Goumen & Smirnova posted a brief blurb from Echo of Moscow that mentions 108 and the Buddhist connection…)
Though I agree with Echo’s assessment that the book is more “a history of human passions” than a story of individual characters, I thought Kuznetsov’s water-based methods evolved to be too obvious, too programmed, even too superfluous to create a graceful transition from individual characters to universal passions and values. I wholeheartedly agree with the blogger known as Заметил просто that (I’ll paraphrase) the book would have left a better impression if I/we hadn’t read it to the very end. Which is too bad: trusting us, the readers, more and leaving some of the mysticism and the water to the imagination might have transformed the book—which I looked forward to reading and found entertaining—into something far more moving and satisfying.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

2011 NOSE Long List

It’s been a long time since I’ve methodically gone through an entire long or short list for an award, adding links and descriptions… so here you go: the entire 25-member 2011 НОС/NOSE award long list, with a few notes, including links to previous posts about the four books I’ve read. As usual, I’m sure some of the title translations are awful due to lack of context. The NOSE award is a program of the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund.
I’m also sure more summaries, excerpts, and full texts are floating around in the Runet, but this warm fall day keeps calling me away from my computer! Though a few books sound interesting, I can’t say I found anything new on the list that I feel compelled to seek out right away, particularly since there seem to be a lot of short story collections and nonfiction books on the list. Marina Palei, whom I’ve been meaning to read for some time, is probably at the top of my list.
1. Andrei Astvatsaturov: Скунскамера (Skunskamera), a book that’s a veteran of long and short lists.
2. Karine Arutiunova: Пепел красной коровы (Ash from the Red Cow), a collection of very short stories.
3. Marina Akhmedova: Дневник смертницы. Хадижа (Diary of a Death Girl. Khadizha. [a key title word can mean a prisoner condemned to death or a suicide bomber]), a novel about a Dagestani girl that Akhmedova based on stories of real girls in the Northern Caucasus.
4. Nikolai Baitov: Думай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak). Short stories (41 in 320 pages) from a poet.
5. Il’ia Boiashov: Каменная баба (The Stone Woman) (previous post)
6. Iana Vagner: Вонгозеро (Vongozero), a debut novel about a nasty flu; the book grew out of Live Journal posts.
7. Igor’ Vishnevetskii: Ленинград (Leningrad), a novella set in Leningrad during World War 2 that Vishnevetskii says is a postscript of sorts to Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg because he imagined Belyi’s characters in his own book. For more: Svobodanews.ru interview with Vishnevetskii here.
8. Natal’ia Galkina: Табернакль (Tabernacle)
9. Dj Stalingrad: Исход (could be Exodus or something like The Outcome), apparently about leftwing skinheads.
10. Dmitrii Danilov: Горизонтальное положение (Horizontal Position) (previous post)
11. Nikolai Kononov: Фланёр (The Flâneur), a novel set in the 1930s and 1940s. (OpenSpace.ru review)
12. Aleksandr Markin: Дневник 2006–2011 (Diary 2006-2011), Live Journal posts from Russia’s first LJ blogger. (This seems to be a common thread this year…) Comments on Ozon.ru note Markin’s interest in German literature and European architecture.
13. Aleksei Nikitin: Истеми (İstemi), a novel about bored students who create a geopolitical game and get in trouble. (The description on the Ad Marginem site is much more complicated.) Risk, anyone?
14. Marina Palei: Дань саламандре (beginning end) (Tribute [the monetary kind] for the Salamander) was also long-listed for the National Bestseller award.
15. Viktor Pelevin: Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы (Pineapple Water for the Beautiful Lady), a bestselling story collection.
16. Andrei Rubanov: Тоже родина (Also a Motherland), a story collection.
17. Maria Rybakova: Гнедич (Gnedich), a novel in verse about Russian poet Nikolai Gnedich, the first Russian translator of The Iliad. Rybakova is also a poet. Excerpt
18. Figl’-Migl’: Ты так любишь эти фильмы (You Love Those Films So Much), a NatsBest finalist that lost in a tie breaker vote when Kseniia Sobchak cast her vote for Dmitrii Bykov instead. Sobchak said in an interview that she doesn’t consider F-M’s book literature. She also compares Bykov to McDonald’s and says she hates his ЖД (Living Souls) (previous post). Take that!
19. Margarita Khemlin: Крайний (Krainii: my previous post explains the title)
20. Andrei Sharyi and Iaroslav Shimov: Корни и корона (Roots and the Crown), essays about Austro-Hungary. (OpenSpace.ru review)
21. Mikhail Shishkin: Письмовник (Letter-Book) (previous post)
22. Nina Shnirman: Счастливая девочка (Lucky Girl) (excerpt); a book about a girl’s childhood that includes World War 2. I’m not clear if it’s strictly memoir or somewhat fictionalized. Either way, it was a Cosmo book of the month!
23. Gleb Shul’piakov: Фес (Fes or Fez, as you prefer), a novel. The publisher’s description says Fes is about a man who brings his wife to the maternity hospital and, when left to his own devices, ends up in a basement in an unidentified eastern city… sounds like more warped reality.
24. Aleksandr Iablonskii: Абраша (Abrasha), a novel with a vague summary.
25. Irina Iasina: История болезни (Case History) appears to be a memoir about having multiple sclerosis.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day 2011 Potpourri: Dovlatov & Two Abandoned Books

Saturday, September 3 was the 70th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Dovlatov, author of The Compromise (previous post), one of my very favorite twentieth-century Russian books. There have been lots of celebrations of Dovlatov’s very short life this year, including awarding the Dovlatov prize on Saturday to Eduard Kochergin, for the story collection Ангелова кукла (Angel's Doll) and Крещенные крестами (Baptized with Crosses), which also won the National Bestseller award last year (previous post). New Yorkers can look forward to a Dovlatov event on October 30, 2011, “A Life Is Too Short,” described as “an evening of literature, music, and documentary images dedicated to Sergei Dovlatov.” I wish New York were closer!
Meanwhile, Dovlatov had a cameo appearance in a book I recently attempted to read but abandoned, Anatolii Naiman’s Каблуков (Kablukov), a novel about a screen writer. Joseph Brodsky also showed up. I’ve probably mentioned before that I have a personal (and perhaps inconsistent) dislike of mentions of writers and other historical figures in fiction… unless they’ve been dead for at least a couple of generations. The namedroppy resurrections of Dovlatov and Brodsky weren’t the primary reason I gave up on Naiman’s book, though: shifts in narrative point of view, heavy shapelessness, and lack of momentum or arc were far more fatal.
Lest I miss out on anything, I checked a couple reviews before putting Kablukov back on the shelf. I found that Time Out called it “не самый увлекательный роман на свете” (“not the most absorbing book in the world”) then learned that Lev Danilkin wrote that it lacks “raison d’Ptre” (hmm, a [sic] might be in order…), comparing it to Panikovsky sawing at a weight in The Golden Calf, looking for gold. Indeed. The first 60 pages of Kablukov contained some interesting material about Soviet-era life and the legacy of the Stalin-era repression, plus lots of allusions, but the text felt so dense and, for me, swampily aimless, that there was no reward for all the heavy lifting. I should add that there was a big fuss in 2005 when Kablukov did not win the Russian Booker.
By comparison, the first 60 or 70 pages of Leonid Girshovich’s peculiar Вий, вокальный цикл Шуберта на слова Гоголя (a title I’ve seen translated as “Viy,” Schubert’s Songs to Gogol’s Words) drew me right in. Girshovich’s novel about collaborators in occupied Kiev is thoroughly literary, too—unusually lively notes in the back explain numerous references—but Girshovich creates sharp, weird scenes, situations, and characters that give the book plenty of raison d’ être. This is a book that works despite my painful reference/subtext deficiencies; I haven’t read Bulgakov’s White Guard, Nabokov’s Gift, or Mann’s Magic Mountain, though at least I’ve read “Viy” and listened to lots of Schubert. Maybe this winter I’ll finally just force myself to read White Guard: I’ve already tried at least three or four times, not counting my attempts at the play version, Days of the Turbins, which I tried and failed to read when it was on my grad school reading list. Maybe this will finally be my year. Hope dies last!
Speaking of abandoned books, I also dumped Aleksei Slapovskii’s Большая книга перемен (The Big Book of Changes). The Big Book is on the short list for the 2011 Big Book award but I think its title is its only hope for winning. Though The Big Book of Changes is far easier reading than the Naiman and Girshovich books, Slapovskii’s portrayal of middle-age friends from high school and a family with some businessmen just didn’t hold my interest, even during a lazy day with Tropical Storm Irene. As with Slapovskii’s They (previous post), the characters and situations felt stereotypically typical and shoulder-shruggingly minor rather than archetypically typical and painfully emblematic because Slapovskii doesn’t portray them from new or unique perspectives. As many Russian reviewers have noted, Slapovskii is also a screenwriter, and the book reads more like the basis for a TV series than a novel. At 640 pages and 585 grams (according to Ozon) The Big Book of Changes certainly is a big book in size, but, based on the first 200 or so pages that I read, Slapovskii missed out, big time, on a big chance to transform a wordy chunk of writing into a big and important social novel. Cutting lots of back story and detail would have been a great start. I’m glad I read electronically.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

“Horizontal Position, Sleep”: Danilov’s Diary-as-Novel, Horizontal Position

Dmitrii Danilov’s Горизонтальное положение (Horizontal Position), which I read in the abridged journal version published in Novyi mir, was a pleasant surprise: the beginning of the book looked completely unprepossessing to me when I first scanned through it online, with many of the very short sentences in the book’s first diary entry containing little more than street names and information about travel on public transportation.
But Danilov won me over. I’m sure it helps that his narrator and I are both corporate writers and have visited many of the same places, from Mytishchi to Arkhangel’sk to Russian Bookstore No. 21 in New York City. Far more important, though, was Danilov’s ability to fill—and connect—the diary entries with everyday material about the narrator’s work, travels, and downtime. Horizontal Position is a rare case of a book where brand names don’t irritate me. Danilov makes them feel almost anthropological: the narrator mentions Live Journal, Flickr, a Yankee cap, and even a Hummus Place restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (“вай-фай, ура!” – “wifi, hurray!”), pinpointing time and place with tremendously spare, repetitive language.

So what happens in Horizontal Position? An apparently single guy who turns 40 during the course of the book writes diary entries about life and his corporate work, much of it for the oil and gas industry. He travels for work, discusses taking a course in religion, and mentions literary pursuits. He rarely reveals much if something rattles or pleases him—he seems restrained, almost inert, at least in the text—even when he has an unhappy client. There’s some dry humor: I particularly enjoyed the passage when a client asks him to make a corporate text more artistic and lyrical. He tells us he plays an online fantasy (?) soccer game. He tells us what he does before he gets into a horizontal position to go to sleep, sometimes in uncomfortable beds. Countless entries end with “Горизонтальное положение. Сон.” – “Horizontal Position. Sleep.”
The key to Horizontal Position is the epigraph, from Iurii Mamleev’s “Серые дни” (“Gray Days”): “Но в общем все осталось по-прежнему и ничего не изменилось, хотя как будто и произошли события.” – “But for the most part everything remained as it had been and nothing had changed, though apparently some things had happened.” Sure, I know Danilov’s narrator reads Crime and Punishment and Sergei Samsonov’s Аномалия Камлаева (The Kamlaev Anomaly), listens to Splin, and eats a lot of hummus in New York because of the free Wifi. I even know, in excruciating detail, his Moscow travel routes.
Despite all those details, though, I don’t know much about the man’s ambitions. And you can probably tell that I don’t remember if he has a name or not… I could swear something gave me the idea he was a Dmitrii, like his creator, but now I can’t remember/find where I got that sense. But it suits me if the narrator is anonymous—or reveals but doesn’t want me to remember his name—since he stands in for all our days, weeks, months, and years that feel like we’re living in what a college friend thought of as personal human Habitrails, shuttling ourselves from place to place to do whatever we must. Meaning: I know nothing but everything about this guy. Blogger Заметил просто, who also doesn’t use a name for the narrator, refers to the guy’s limited choices, like taking one bus instead of another. (Hmm, this reminds me of something else…) And no matter where you are, at home, on a train, or in your сингл-рум (single room) on the Upper West Side, you’re likely to end up in a horizontal position at the end of the day unless, of course, you’re on a plane.
I should add that Horizontal Position is a 2011 Big Book Award finalist; I’ve now read four of the 10 books (Danilov, Slavnikova, Sorokin, and Shishkin) and abandoned one (Arabov). Horizontal Position is my favorite so far in terms of sheer readability. The diary form makes it easy to read one more entry, then another, and I enjoyed the narrator’s sneaky humor, even if I thought Danilov shouldn’t have let him spend so much time in New York. I forgave him when the narrator staged a minor rebellion toward the end, exhausted from all his travel and record-keeping.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Train Spotting: Buida’s Zero Train and Astaf’ev’s Sad Detective

There are so many trains in Russian fiction—and history—that I suppose it’s not at all odd that I read, absolutely unintentionally, two short novels in a row with strong railroad themes. Come to think of it, both pieces also involve orphans, another common theme in Russian novels. The novellas: Iurii Buida’s Дон Домино, known in Oliver Ready’s English translation (from which I’ve quoted below using Amazon’s Look Inside! feature) as The Zero Train, and Viktor Astaf’ev’s Печальный детектив (The Sad Detective).
Beyond the common importance of railroad, difficult family situations, and social changes, however, the novellas couldn’t be more different. Buida’s Zero Train, a Booker Prize finalist in 1994, is an elegantly composed metaphysical portrayal of people whose lives are connected by a mysterious train that passes through their town each day. Despite allegory, the air of mystery, and odd happenings, I’d say The Zero Train’s tracks end before the Fantasy station. Astaf’ev’s Detective, dated 1986, tells of a policeman-cum-writer who’s retired because of job-related injuries; Detective felt like an uneasy blend of village prose (деревенская проза) and чернуха, that crushing naturalism I so often seem to read.
Descriptions of character and plot don’t go very far in explaining why The Zero Train appealed to me so much: in many ways, the railroad life of its main character, Ivan Ardabyev, known as Don Domino because he loves playing dominoes, isn’t especially remarkable. It’s the strange, punctual Train No. 0 that mattered most here, linking disparate characters who work on or watch the railroad and acting almost like a mirror as they wonder what the train carries and where it goes. Security forces are a strong presence: Buida gives Lavrentii Beria himself some ink and Ardabyev, whose parents were enemies of the people, has dealings with a security officer.
Ardabyev doesn’t just lack parents: he’s also told has no past, no present, no beliefs in God or devils. He has only the Zero Train, a conveyance with a nihilistic number that Ardabuev himself resembles. Who are you if your parents have been x-ed out of existence under horrible circumstances and you have little real need for meaning? Ardabyev asks Fira, one of the women in his life, “А зачем он нужен, смысл?... Смысл только в нас, в тебе и во мне, и если мы так думаем, нет ничего другого, и смерти нет.” (“What do we need meaning for?... The only meaning is in us, in you and in me, and if that’s what we think then there’s nothing else, not even death.”)
Of course the biggest mystery of The Zero Train is the meaning of the train itself. The train’s odd existence represents life to the town’s residents and their curiosity about what’s at the end of the line reminds of curiosity about death and the afterlife. As Fira says to Ivan, “Что-то там есть. Иначе зачем же тогда Линия, зачем нулевой, зачем мы, зачем все это?” (“There must be something there. Or else what’s the Line for, the Zero? What are we doing here? What’s it all for?”) Ivan can only say he doesn’t know, the train reminds him of life. The ending of The Zero Train is ambiguous, as Oliver Ready notes in his afterword, and I think that’s part of my enjoyment of the book: Buida finds a nice balance of allegory, history, and reality, and has the good sense to write a short novel that reveals just enough about his people and his train to spin a wonderfully heady tale. I’m looking forward to reading more Buida.
By contrast, Astaf’ev’s Detective felt unbalanced and, well, sad, not just because the title character has had a difficult life and career but because I got the impression Astaf’ev couldn’t quite decide whether to write about life around a train station, life in the country, the work life of a policeman, or the personal life of a policeman. The problem isn’t one of space—all that could fit in one novella—but I don’t think Astaf’ev succeeds in linking his diverse people and stories into a novel(la), though everything’s a little too connected to be a collection of linked stories.
There’s some gritty material—for me, a crime committed with a pitchfork in a veal barn is the most vivid scene from the book—and there are lots of social and moral aspects of Soviet life about which to feel sad and mournful along with Soshnin, Astaf’ev’s title figure. The Sad Detective doesn’t just feel unfinished or underdone, it also feels like a piece a bit ahead of its time. Much of what Detective covers reminds me of later chernukha novels that contain similarly harsh realities but more cogent structures. I feel particularly mournful about The Sad Detective because I thought Astaf’ev’s Lyudochka was very good (previous post).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Best of Intentions: Oleg Pavlov’s Barracks Tale

Oleg Pavlov’s writing seems to drive me to contradictory reactions: even when I don’t enjoy his books, I can’t put them down. And then, upon reflection, I find myself respecting, liking, and recommending them. Pavlov’s Асистолия (Asystole or Flatline), which I called “a real downer” when I read it last year, still feels like a downer because it delves into the psychology of a nameless guy in post-Soviet Russia who lacks heart function… but it still won’t let me go, a quality I value more than enjoyment during reading.
Pavlov’s Казенная сказка, which I’ll call A Barracks Tale for now, is a downer, too, though in a very different way: Pavlov offers up a sad military parable with a big share of absurdity. I came away from this first novel amazed at Pavlov’s ability to weave together the tragic and the absurd using wickedly expressive language that is almost home(l)y without being cloying or fussy.

With plenty of plot and a setting in the Kazakh steppe, A Barracks Tale may be more topographically open than the extreme interiority of Asystole but Pavlov’s depiction of relationships and close quarters at a military company co-located with a prison, gave me a powerful feeling of claustrophobia. The crux of the story: a captain, Khabarov, plants potatoes to keep his men from going hungry then gets in trouble; the potatoes are confiscated. That’s only the half of it, but Khabarov’s actions and fate (a bad one that I won’t reveal since this book is destined for translation) remind me of one of the most famous utterances credited to Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, “Хотели как лучше, получилось как всегда,” roughly “We wanted better but things turned out the same as usual.” I won’t summarize the plot more since Pavlov’s Facebook page includes a summary (written by Susan Anne Brown for Dalkey Archive Press) of Tale and two subsequent short novels; the trilogy is known as Повести последних дней (Tales of Recent Days).
The summary also likens Pavlov to Gogol, which is perfectly apt, though Pavlov’s humor seemed more muted to me, perhaps because it’s so intrinsically connected with the tragedy and recentness of horrible degradation in the late Soviet era. Pavlov’s dense writing and vivid imagery is perfect for conveying the deprivations and indignities—including lice, not enough (unappetizing) food, and cold—the men face. I felt immersed in shades of khaki, brown, and gray. Though the imagery and action sometimes seemed a little overwhelming and even over-extended—as with Asystole I sometimes couldn’t quite recall what I’d read but then realized, upon review, that I hadn’t missed anything—the novel wraps up with a welcome clarity I hadn’t expected.
As for that title. The second word, сказка/skazka, is the easy one: it’s the word for a fairytale or folk tale. But казённая/kazyonnaya, is difficult because it’s derived from the word казна/kazna, for treasury. Казённый is often used to refer to government property but has taken on more metaphorical meanings that reflect how people see government property and matters: bureaucratic, bland, mediocre. It’s a perfect choice for the title of the book because it expresses so much, from government involvement in a horrible episode to the ubiquitous nature of the problems it depicts.
Toward the end of the book, Pavlov refers to Khabarov as “our captain,” reinforcing his own role as storyteller—this is a skazka, after all—as well as Khabarov’s representation of his men and, by extension, humanity. That “our”—and others before it—also reinforces Pavlov’s power to draw the reader into his story.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

More Fairytale Transformations: Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Russian Booker Lives

The Russian Booker Prize has a new general sponsor, Российская корпорация средств связи, known as Russian Telecom Equipment Company in English. RTEC has a history of supporting literary awards: it began sponsoring the Student Booker in 2010 and has been involved with that program for seven years, according to a news story on Lenta.ru. Lenta also reports that a five-year sponsorship contract with the Booker may be signed this summer.
No Booker will be awarded for 2011; books released this year may be submitted for the 2012 prize season. The Booker will, however, hold a special “Booker of the Decade” competition in 2011. All shortlisted books from 2001-2010 are eligible. Judges from past Booker seasons will choose five works each to develop a shortlist that will be announced in early November. The winner will be announced on December 1; the prize will be 600,000 rubles.
The Booker site has a summary of rules plus a list of all eligible Booker of the Decade books online here. There are lots of books on the list that I’d love to see get more (or less!) attention… and I’d be interested in hearing reader predictions.
For my part, I’m about to start reading Oleg Pavlov’s Казенная сказака (A Barracks Tale or Military Apologue), a 1995 Booker finalist and the first book of a trilogy that culminated in Карагандинские девятины, или Повесть последних дней (A Ninth-Day Wake/Party at Karaganda or A Story of Recent Days or Commemoration in Karaganda), which won the Booker in 2002. (Oy, there are multiple translated titles floating around for these books!) Readers on the lookout for English-language translations will be happy to know that A Barracks Tale is listed as winning a translation grant from Transcript, a program of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation; publisher is And Other Stories.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Seeing the Light: Platonov’s Juvenile Sea

After reading Il’ia Boiashov’s unsatisfying Stone Woman, I decided to get back to (modern) classics with a bit of Andrei Platonov… it finally felt like time to read the long story Ювенильное море (Juvenile Sea, sometimes Sea of Youth). And what a wonderfully disorienting pleasure it was to read Platonov: it would have been worth reading if only for its giant pumpkin shell sleeping pods.
And where else can a reader find a production story – goals here include increasing cattle production and investigating alternative energy sources – written in a variegated language that braids poetic turns with Soviet-speak and tropes from socialist realism? I think my biggest difficulty in reading Platonov is that his unusual word combinations dazzle so much that I have to read each line twice to apprehend their various literal, figurative, and story meanings. Often, twice is not enough: Platonov’s writing is so full of остранение (making it strange) that almost everything feels a bit off, unusual, or grotesque, making reading a full-on experience. Even the preface to one of my Platonov books begins with the line “Кажется, мы уже никогда не узнаем, как читать Андрея Платонова.” – “It seems that we will never find out how to read Andrei Platonov.” The key has fallen away in the waters of time, explains Valentin Kurbatov… a particularly fitting phrase for The Juvenile Sea.
Of course I prefer back doors and loose windows to lost keys because I don’t think there’s any single correct way to read a book or writer. And all those layers of cryptic words and meaning are why a stubborn reader like me so enjoys Platonov. Rather than write about the entire story, which could take a month or two, I’ll mention a jumble of the oddities and happenings that drew me in on the first pages, then list a few of the themes they raise. If you want to learn more about the whole story, Thomas Seifrid’s book Andrei Platonov summarizes some of the technical themes in The Juvenile Sea here, on Google books.
The Juvenile Sea begins as an engineer and electrician, Nikolai Vermo, crosses the steppe in the southeast Soviet Union on foot, spending his days staving off boredom by imagining himself as a machinist, pilot, or geologist. He finds himself at the home of Adrian Umrishchev, director of a state farm for raising meat; Vermo presents papers that ordered him to the farm. Umrishchev is reading an ancient book with old words, about Ivan the Terrible. On The Juvenile Sea’s third page, Umrishchev says he resolved a housing crisis with the afore-mentioned pumpkin shells. He soon describes how he’d been placed on the rolls of the “unexplained” (невыясненные) after demobilization from the Soviet apparatus. Vermo and Umrishchev talk into the night. Here’s the phrase that indicates morning has arrived: “Ночь, теряя свой смысл, заканчивалась” – “Night, losing its point/meaning/purpose, ended.”
Light and Dark. I withered when I read that phrase about night, and I kept returning to it as I read The Juvenile Sea: the sun as a source of power is a key piece of the story, and brightness and mentions of electricity link into typical themes from Soviet propaganda and socialist realism, along with more metaphorical aspects of light, such as enlightenment.
Generations. The phrase also struck me on a more emotional level because of the mention of loss of purpose. Umrishchev’s name is rooted in “die” and even his breathing feels tired; he gives off an air of boredom and doubt. And of course he was “unexplained” – talk about lacking purpose! – until he become fully explained through practical work. At the end of the story we see two couples, one young and setting out to America (!) for a business trip, the other old, staying behind.
The Dark Side of Sotsrealism. A horrible sadness – starting with тоска (I’ll just call it deep melancholy) in Vermo’s heart in the second sentence – flows through The Juvenile Sea… along with Platonov’s characters’ optimism. Of course there are plenty of enthusiastic workers in socialist realism, but they don’t carry this kind of toska. Or so many rats: rats run over one character as she sleeps, though she doesn’t hear them. It’s those jarring combinations that make Platonov’s writing feel so wonderfully convoluted and oddly real.
The Great Pumpkin. Russian Dinosaur’s mention of The Velveteen Rabbit in a blog post (and a college course) about socialist realism inspires me to invite Linus van Pelt’s Great Pumpkin into my post: Soviet-era promises of a bright future (the good old светлое будущее), communism, and even superlative meat production were about as likely to materialize as the Great Pumpkin. Belief is at the root of my fascination with the huge pumpkins in The Juvenile Sea: my first thought was to wonder if such pumpkins were possible. I later reminded myself that real reality didn’t matter because I was reading a piece of work that corrupts socialist realism, a myth-laden genre, and its language.
P.S. Platonov’s Life. I’ve been reading and enjoying Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin’s Writers, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Among other things, Westerman mentions Platonov’s technical education and experience (some of which dovetails with The Juvenile Sea), difficulties publishing, and relationship with Maxim Gorky. I’ll write more about Engineers of the Soul later, probably in a nonfiction roundup post.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Boiashov’s Stone Woman

I’ll be blunt: Il’ia Boiashov’s Каменная баба (The Stone Woman, more on the title below) just isn’t my kind of book, and not liking it was especially disappointing after Boiashov’s wonderful The Tank Driver or “White Tiger” (past post). Subject matter probably has a lot to do with my disappointment. Tank Driver is about World War Two, which interests me, but Stone Woman looks at the phenomenon of strong Russian women through the prism of showbiz and celebrity.
The Stone Woman is a roaches-to-riches tale of a singer from an undetermined province, and Boishov constructs his story by layering Russian myth upon archetypes upon more myth as the woman rises from a squalid childhood to become a Russian TV star and singer. She reminds of Alla Borisovna Pugacheva: her hit song “Миллиард тюльпанов на площади” (“A Billion Tulips on the Square”) is clearly a parodic cousin of Alla Borisovna’s Миллион алых роз (“A Million Scarlet Roses”). I’m not an avid consumer of Russian or Western celebrity news, so I’m sure I missed out on plenty of references.

I think my problem with The Stone Woman is that it’s so overloaded with references to Russian and foreign culture, popular and historical, that it feels gimmicky even if the kitschiness of contemporary culture and the power of the entertainment industry is part of Boiashov’s point. Examples: Tom Cruise gets a cameo and our antiheroine has a granddaughter named Lisa-Marie. I did occasionally laugh at Boiashov’s portrayal of an overbearing Russian woman who attracts endless men, breastfeeds her son so long I wanted to call in Dr. Freud, and lives at the top of a swanky building (see image), but the exaggerated humor was a bit over-the-top for my delicate sensibilities.
I found Boiashov’s schematicness and use of italics annoying, too, especially when he refers to his title character as stone woman. Her real name is Maria Ugarova, which gives you Maria/Mary/oh-you-know-Madonna +ugar, which can be carbon monoxide fumes/poisoning, ecstasy and intoxication, or even industrial wastes of various types, according to my trusty Oxford Russian-English dictionary. Take that, Alla Borisovna: the pug- root of your name promises only fright and intimidation, and a pugach is just a toy gun or an owl. The term каменная баба, kamennaia baba, refers to a stone image of a warrior (or woman) that’s placed on a burial mound, giving Ugarova one heck of an ancient lineage.
But I shrug. That accomplished, I’ll say that The Stone Woman may be a love-it-or-hate-it book: I finished because it’s 158 small pages plus Boiashov’s Q&A session with himself about Russian women. (I won’t even begin to remark on that!) Comments on ozon.ru when I wrote were positive (five stars) but I wondered as I read the novel – as did reviewer mashona on Vaffly.ru – who’d want to read the book, given that (I’ll summarize some of mashona’s points) Boiashov doesn’t say anything new, most readers aren’t very interested in Alla Borisovna, and Alla Borisovna herself isn’t going to read that she’s being portrayed as (essentially) a prostitute. I suspect The Stone Woman would be most interesting and fun for casual readers and scholars who enjoy dissecting popular culture, excavating myths, fairytale themes, truths, and fantastical elements. There’s plenty there.
If you’re in the market for a novel about an overbearing Russian woman, I’m more likely to recommend Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, translated by Tim Mohr from the German original Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche. The Hottest Dishes leans toward character study and peters out in the last third or so, but I thought Bronsky did an admirable job portraying Rosa Achmetowna, a beautiful (or so she says) battleaxe who claims to mean well. I thought the book was much funnier than Boiashov’s Stone Woman, perhaps because Bronsky’s first-person narrative (from Rosa herself) juxtaposes humor with references to Soviet woes. As I wrote on my other blog, I’ve known plenty of women like Rosa. As bossy women, Rosa and Masha Ugarova certainly share plenty of characteristics, but Rosa, who’s larger than life but still feels real, is far more compelling to me than Boiashov’s grotesque and italicized stone woman.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

It’s Always Fun Until…: Benigsen’s GenAcide

Vsevolod Benigsen’s novel ГенАцид (GenAcide) reminds me of lines parents and teachers love to use on kids, things like “It’s always fun until someone gets hurt.” Benigsen’s descriptions of Russian village life and residents are gentle but unforgiving, presented with humor that reminds me of Vladimir Voinovich’s depiction of soldier Chonkin’s adventures. But Benigsen morphs farce into tragedy by creating, gradually, tension within his fictional community. Fear not: I won’t reveal specifics of the ending, though it’s clear from the first pages that a happy end is not in store. If that’s not enough, a weapon appears in the first half of the book, not long after a discussion of Chekhov.
In GenAcide, Benigsen describes a village, Bol’shie Ushchery, in which each resident is given, according to a presidential order, a piece of Russian literature to learn. Quickly. There will be a test. The project name, “ГенАцид(GenAcide), stands for Государственная Единая Национальная Идея – roughly State Unifying National Idea. It sounds like “genocide.” Book distribution is delegated to the town’s librarian, Anton Pakhomov, a historian who has nothing in common with his neighbors and sees history as “бардак,” a word for brothel that has come to mean, essentially, a terrible mess.
Book distribution goes okay and residents take to reciting their works in public and at parties. Even local unity, however, is not guaranteed: one resident balks at receiving Andrei Platonov’s Чевенгур (Chevengur) and things start falling apart in a big way when cliques – e.g. prose against poetry – develop and rivals fight. Some of this is very funny, including residents’ neologisms for describing themselves as GenAcide participants. I particularly appreciated a character who speaks his own odd form of Russian: he receives Kruchenykh to memorize. Zaum, indeed!
After all the humor, GenAcide concludes with jarring actions of a violent mob and a character’s thoughts that Russians have a tendency toward chaos and problems. I won’t say more than that… but I will say that I was surprised to read Lev Danilkin’s review, which finds Russophobia in the book. Danilkin enjoyed much of Benigsen’s laugh-out-loud humor but concludes by calling the book “Остроумный, но неприятный роман,” a “witty but unpleasant novel.” He doesn’t like the ending. Neither does Maya Kucherskaya, who thinks the finale doesn’t fit what precedes. She thinks Benigsen lacks empathy and says the book is too realistic, not schematic enough for farce.
I’m not Russian but I read GenAcide very, very differently, far less literally than Danilkin and Kucherskaya. I didn’t find Russophobia at all but a universal, well-constructed book about myth, a parable-like account of the consequences of attempting to use culture – in this case, Russian literature and its surrounding myths – to create a politically expedient national unity, something that’s elusive (perhaps mythical?) in a pure and benign form. Of course part of the problem with mythmaking is that truths and stories tend to be incomplete, and GenAcide’s creators follow the pattern by, often, commanding that people receive chunks of works, like chapters six and seven of Evgenii Onegin or chapters from Saltykov-Shchedrin. Receiving literary works out of context is only one reason residents have difficulty understanding them: one woman can’t even read.
Benigsen pours in many other layers of myth. One example: Pakhomov, who has written about myth, can’t bring himself to take down materials hanging in the “military-historical corner” of his library because the corner feels like a monument to Soviet mythmaking. And Benigsen’s characters felt very obviously (arche)typical to me, offering another hint that Benigsen never aimed for a literal, realistic reading of GenAcide. Beyond Pakhomov, who’s a typical intelligent out-of-his-element, Benigsen offers up a tractor driver (!), a World War 2 partisan, a Central Asian immigrant, a young, pregnant postal worker who steams open a letter to her baby’s father and contemplates how to handle the information… and so on. Yes, everybody feels absolutely vivid, real, and funny, even cozy, at the start of the book but that’s largely because we already know them and their stereotypical situations, both comical and, later, tragic, from elsewhere, from books, TV series, and even the news.
I could write lots more but will mention just one other way Benigsen removes the residents of Bol’shie Ushchery from reality. We learn fairly early in the book that they weren’t counted in a census, something Russians tend to dislike. (I’ve even read scholarly article about this.) Many BU citizens lack documents, don’t know their ages, and can’t explain their jobs. Without documents or real biographies, some are, writes Benigsen, “как дети в дремучем лесу,” “like children in a thick forest,” reinforcing that the characters are the stuff of folktales with uncertain, even composite identities. And documentless people are nonentities in the eyes of government bureaucracy, making them an oddly perfect choice for a project with a name like GenAcide.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bykov Wins NatsBest (Again)

Dmitrii Bykov won the 2011 National Bestseller Award (NatsBest) for his novel Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Bykov is a repeat winner of the NatBest: he won in 2006 for Boris Pasternak. Ostromov is the final book of a trilogy, following Оправдание (Justification) and Орфография (Orthography). Ozon.ru’s listing for all three novels in one volume, which weighs in at 992 pages and 1345 grams, includes brief descriptions.
Update, June 6, 2011: Given Dmitrii Bykov's high public profile, I wondered how long this would take... Lenta.ru reports that Vadim Levental', chair of the NatsBest Organizational Committee, expressed his dissatisfaction with Bykov's win. My summary: Levental' said Bykov is already well-known and widely read therefore doesn't fit the award's goal of finding a book with unrealized potential to become an intellectual bestseller. Prochtenie.ru shows jury voting tied at two each for Bykov and Figl'-Migl', leaving jury chair Kseniia Sobchak to cast the deciding vote. She voted for Bykov but expressed her preference for Mikhail Elizarov's Мультики ('Toons), which won one jury vote.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sorokin’s Ice Prequel: Chillin’ with Bro

Vladimir Sorokin’s Путь Бро (Bro) (sorry, no italicized Cyrillic allowed today on Blogger...), the first novel in Ice Trilogy from New York Review Books, translated by Jamey Gambrell, is a prequel that prehashes much of the core of Sorokin’s Лёд (Ice), a book I read several years ago (previous post). Sorokin wrote Ice first, then backed up to write its back story. Apparently I’m not the only reader (or writer) who wondered, perhaps grudgingly, why all those blue-eyed, light-haired people were knocking each other in the hearts with ice-tipped hammers in an attempt to gather their brethren, 23,000 chosen people, for a special rapture. I haven’t read 23,000, the trilogy’s culmination, but think NYRB’s summary of the trilogy aptly describes the first two books:
Pulp fiction, science fiction, New Ageism, pornography, video-game mayhem, old-time Communist propaganda, and rampant commercial hype all collide, splinter, and splatter in Vladimir Sorokin’s virtuosic Ice Trilogy, a crazed joyride through modern times with the promise of a truly spectacular crash at the end. And the reader, as eager for the redemptive fix of a good story as the Children are for the Primordial Light, has no choice except to go along, caught up in a brilliant illusion from which only illusion escapes intact.

I found in Bro, like Ice, an irritatingly readable book that I didn’t especially like. I couldn’t put either book down (despite repetition), but Sorokin’s abstractions, though effective on one level, make the books feel, to echo what other readers have told me, a little soulless (intentionally?) even when they compel me to keep reading. And both times I had that sinking Peggy Lee feeling of “Is that all there is?” So… In Bro, the title character narrates his life story: born the day the Tunguska meteor hits, goes on Leonid Kulik expedition to site, knocks heart on ice, realizes he’s found his true self. Now he must find 22,999 others like him who are also capable of speaking with their hearts, eating a raw vegetarian diet before it’s trendy, seeing the rest of Earth’s population as meat machines, and being saved during that rapture I mentioned above. Bro begins by finding Fer, Eve to his Adam.
Part of the paradox of Bro and Ice is that they seem silly – the pulpiness NYRB mentions is obvious, with calendar pages tearing off and heart-related passages so cheesy I wrote “oy” in the margins – as they examine the nature of a group that considers itself chosen and allowed to do anything. (I doubt it’s coincidental that Dostoevsky is involved when Bro dreams about a book…) It’s okay to kill, reason is bad, and books are just paper covered with combinations of letters. Bro sees himself as part of a war to free his brothers and sisters, people of light, from the dark, meat machine masses. Bro’s group are higher beings, enlightened, as it were.
It’s notable that Bro’s stylized language changes over the course of the novel. The book’s opening reads like a classic Russian narrative of childhood and youth but Bro’s last quarter contains, for example, a passage about World War Two that mentions the country of Order, the country of Ice, the country of Freedom. Freedom and Ice beat Order. Weapons are metal pipes. Oh, those meat machines! Another passage also uses остранение, defamiliarization, to describe movie screenings in Germany: a box projects shadows onto white material. It reminded me a bit of Natasha Rostova’s trip to the opera in War and Peace.
Bro brings out the hard, cold totalitarianism of Bro and his crew, showing us how they find siblings in the Soviet and Nazi systems and use their infrastructures. In the Soviet Union, they cruise the streets looking for brothers and sisters, arresting them so they can pop them in the hearts and show them their true natures and make them happy, too. And that’s where Bro and Ice are most interesting: showing how the ice people’s activity parallels and intersects with that of real-life totalitarian regimes. Of course Bro’s people are more chosen than the political regimes’ chosen, and their intentions are (even more) purely selfish: their source and inspiration, after all, are celestial, from meteorite ice, a piece of another world.
I could go on and on about Bro and Ice but will just add a few notes: A big caveat: I’ll repeat that I haven’t read 23,000, which apparently Changes Everything. (See Daniel Kalder’s piece on Publishing Perspectives about Sorokin and the trilogy.)… I think New York Review Books did the right thing by placing Bro first in the trilogy book, even though it was written after Ice… According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Sorokin once said literature was just “paper with typographic signs,” thoughts rather like Bro’s… Do I recommend the Ice books? Sort of. If you enjoy abstract novels of ideas with science fiction elements that read easily and offer plenty of oddity, they may be right up your proverbial alley. It’s taken me a few years and a few books to edge into Sorokin’s world.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ah, Sweet Mysteries of Life: Shishkin’s Maidenhair

I love novels like Mikhail Shishkin’s Венерин волос – the title means, literally, Venus Hair, and Marian Schwartz is translating it as Maidenhair for Open Letter, for the fern the name denotes – that seep into my thoughts and occupy my mind so much that any other reading, whether a newspaper or another book, feels like an intrusion. I’ll try to explain without giving away too much… I enjoyed Maidenhair’s unexpected twists and transitions so was glad I didn’t know many specifics before I began reading.
If forced to summarize, I’d say Maidenhair is an omnibus of life – or maybe Life – that presents full ranges of pain and joy, simplicity and complexity, truth and fiction, love and war, and, of course, Mars and Venus. Maidenhair is relentlessly literary, with references to mythology and history that cross timelines and borders, but it is also relentlessly readable, even suspenseful, if you’re willing to accept its flow. I’ve heard complaints about Maidenhair’s naturalism but I think the book would felt terribly empty without it. In summary:
И всегда так было: кому-то отрубают голову, а у двоих в толпе на площади перед эшафотом в это время первая любовь.”
“And that’s how it’s always been: at the same time someone’s head is being lopped off, two in the crowd, on the square in front of the scaffold, are in love for the first time.”
And that, dear readers – along with attendant marriages, births, bust-ups, ambitions, aging, and finding balance in the world – is how I see the crux of Maidenhair. A richly stitched, multi-layered homage to the coexistence of love and death. (NB: Without Woody Allen.) One other thing: Maidenhair also reminds that we, along with the stories we live and tell, repeat, like doubles. Shishkin reinforces the importance of our written stories in several ways. Characters mention written records and repeat old stories (I’m not telling). And the interpreter visits the remains of St. Cyril, co-creator of Cyrillic, in Rome, because those letters mean so much to him. Rome, as Eternal City, by the way, plays an important role in Maidenhair. So do belly buttons.
Yes, Maidenhair lacks a single unified plot and its story threads, knitted together by history, chance, and archetypes, sometimes wander. A lot, which can make the reading challenging but very rewarding. Two characters anchor the novel: a Russian speaker who interprets immigration interviews for Swiss authorities and a female singer named Izabella. We read Q&A sessions, we read of the interpreter’s family problems, and we read Izabella’s intermittent diaries, where we witness her growth from gushing teenager to a wife resigned to a husband’s infidelities.
Though the book’s structure and histories may sound complicated, despite familiar tropes, even Shishkin says the core is simple. Shishkin says in an interview in Contemporary Russian Fiction: A Short List: Russian Authors Interviewed by Kristina Rotkirch, that Maidenhair presents the concept “that life is not only in Russia, life is not only fear and is not at all to be feared – life is to be enjoyed.” At the 2011 London Book Fair, Shishkin likened Maidenhair and Взятие Измаила (The Taking of Ishmael) to conversations he hadn’t had with his parents. I heard Shishkin say that before I read Maidenhair, and I found the thought particularly moving after I read the book and felt the cathartic effect of its portrayal and cataloguing of the kindnesses and brutalities that life -- and thus our parents -- give us.
With difficult conversations in mind, here’s another line that struck me in its emblematic simplicity. It’s from a letter written by Izabella’s boyfriend, a soldier in World War 1:
Это я с тобой разговариваю обо всем на свете, а здесь, в окопах, вообще никогда не говорят вслух о главном – люди курят, пьют, едят, разговаривают о пустяках, о сапогах, например.
“I can speak with you about anything in the world but here, in the trenches, nobody ever talks out loud about the main thing – people smoke, drink, eat, and speak of trivial things, boots, for example.”
Of course boots are pretty important to a soldier, but his meaning is clear: the minutiae of life are fine but death, the underlying main thing, is off the list. Things probably aren’t so different for civilians.
After staring at Maidenhair’s spine on my shelf for more than a year, a bit afraid of it after hearing its reputation for difficulty, I’m happy I read straight through without researching too much as I read. It’s not that I felt lazy: I think it was important to accept the book’s flow – Maidenhair has such a mesmerizing flow that one friend likened it to a fountain – so I could appreciate the cumulative emotional effect and heady surprises of all those drops, lives, histories, people, stories, and words that Shishkin piles on. Though I picked up plenty of references, I know I missed nuances (and more) because of my lopsided knowledge of history and classics, but I’ll save a detailed analysis of Maidenhair’s shards of history, mythology, language, and, yes, Rome for another reading.
Also: Maidenhair won the National Bestseller prize in 2005.

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