Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Who Are You?": Novellas from Vladimir Makanin and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina

I’ve always loved medium-length fiction—long stories, novellas, and short novels, though I may be too loose with the labels—and hold a special affection for Russian books containing works of fiction of varying lengths. I read novellas from two such collections this summer and was interested to find some basic plot and thematic similarities—man leaves city of residence, ends up in other place, has relationship(s) with woman, numerous questions about society and identity arise—that pushed me to write about the two novellas in one post. They are Vladimir Makanin’s На первом дыхании (At First Breath) and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina’s Развилка (The Fork in the Road).

At First Breath has been adapted for film and the main contours of the plot summary on Wikipedia are just close enough to the novella that I won’t bother rehashing beyond saying that a man, Oleg, returns to Moscow to win back his beloved, who’s now married another man. Book-Oleg, however, isn’t really wanted anywhere so he spends his nights all over the place, including at Kursk train station, a favorite spot in Venedikt Yerofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line, in H. William Tjalsma’s translation), plus, I hasten to add, Oleg not only rents out his relatives’ apartment to gypsies, he sells their possessions, too.

At First Breath’s plot feels relatively familiar, quite probably because I’ve read a fair number of Makanin’s other books, including his (much, much longer) Underground or A Hero of Our Time (previous post), in which another first-person narrator wanders from place to place raising questions about identity and society. Oleg wonders as he wanders, too, since he’s in a world where he feels nobody needs him, some amorphous “they” is/are always to blame, and he tells Galya, his beloved, that he’s going to save the world. Her response is, “Знаю. Знаю.” (“I know. I know.”) In a paragraph I labeled “love,” Oleg says he knows nothing about tacky/banal luxury (that being “пошлая роскошь”) but is accustomed to finding freedom in the steppes, a sense of Time on trains, and at least a bathroom in Moscow. What, really, does a person need? That’s what I almost always seem to love about Makanin’s earlier works: a sense of wondering, wandering, tragedy, and comedy about an individual that rises to something larger, something more universal. At First Breath feels like it might have even been a sketch of sorts for Underground; I checked Wikipedia and found that they came out 1995 and 1998, respectively.

Alexandrova-Zorina’s more recent Fork in the Road offers up a reverse scenario: Bagramov, a Muscovite, is driving to a distant town on business and gets stuck, literally, psychologically, and metaphysically, in a blizzard, and the last sign he sees says “Яма” (“Pit”), something he sees as a bad omen. Indeed! He ends up in the pits. This novella reads like the result of Vladimir Propp’s work morphing into Fairy Tale Transformations for Failure, where there’s never any chance of anything resembling a happy ending.

Nothing goes well for Bagramov. Our anti-hero loves telling the hapless people around him that he’s got plenty of money to get himself out of the mess he’s driven into but nobody knows their location (!) so when he calls Moscow he doesn’t know where to ask the operator to send help. His housing with Vasilisa (this is a very marked name but she’s not a beautiful fairytale princess) is infested with mice (there are some grisly scenes), another woman in town claims her husband is in Moscow but he’s dead, and there are even (OMG) shades of the Log Lady. Fork in the Road is filled with the familiar tropes of drinking, the decay of infrastructure, and societal breakdown, and Bagramov is thwarted, even violently, each time he attempts to climb out of the pit. The ending, with a sort of search party, is pretty predictable but it fits the novella perfectly by allowing an additional and literal examination of identity—questions of “who are you/am I?” have been sounding since the beginning—as well as reinforcements of opposites like city/rural, rich/poor, and cultured/uncultured. This is dark, sad stuff but several things differentiate Fork in the Road from the чернуха (dark realism) that was so (un?)popular five or ten years ago: a peculiar sense of suspense (I initially rooted for Bagramov to get the hell out of town even if he had to walk, though I knew the story wouldn’t go anywhere if he did), the feeling of a dark fairytale or at least a morality story, and a fitting absurdity that arises from those first two factors. Maybe ignorance really is bliss? I don’t know how many times I said “this is so strange” as I read Fork in the Road, and that’s a “strange” that covers a lot of meanings and emotions.

Disclaimers: The usual. I once translated a story by Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina for Чтение.

Up next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m still waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov. And Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия, literally Savely’s Days, a novel about a cat that feels especially lovely after these novellas and Lullaby. After Savely, I’ll need to pounce (finally!) on my Big Book reading.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Head-Melting Heat Wave Edition: Short Takes on Short Stories

It seems like it’s getting hotter by the minute here in New England so I’m glad the beach is close, we bought a fairly quiet air conditioner, and I’ve taken a few days off. I think that sets the muddled scene for a post with some (relatively) brief comments about some of the brief stories I’ve read in recent months. Yes, I still prefer novels, preferably long novels with sturdy structures, but I often find there’s nothing better than a good short story for restoring my faith in contemporary literature. My mystical and malleable combination for success is an opening that gives me no choice but to keep reading, brevity, solid internal logic that ties the story’s form to its content, and an emotional kick. On another note, it’s interesting that the two cycles of stories in this post are based on real-life families and I enjoyed them very much, though I often have misgivings about memoirs and, perhaps even more so, fiction that’s obviously based on real lives. That’s because I frequently find that the balance between fact and literary devices (and even thin fictionalization itself for autobiographical fiction) feels uneasy to me, skewing the text’s internal logic. These cycles from Anna Berdichevskaya and Sergei Dovlatov, however, make balance look easy.

Anna Berdichevskaya’s Молёное дитятко (uh-oh, the first word feels like it combines the meanings of “blessed” and “wanted/desired” and the second is a word for “child,” albeit a word that various dictionaries mark as affectionate, regional, and conversational) is a collection of stories about Berdichevskaya’s life, beginning when she’s in utero during the era of the mustached one, continuing to the present, and organized according to the chronological order of her life rather than when they were composed. I only read the first of five sections/cycles in the book—six stories, about ninety pages—because the first story in the second section, set in another phase of life, felt so different to me that I decided to set the book aside to read that cycle separately.

The first cycle carries the collective title “Якубова, на выход!” (fairly literally “Yakubova, to the door!”) and covers notable events like the night of Berdichevskaya’s mother’s arrest—she’s reading Tom Thumb to Berdichevskaya’s brother—as well as her trial, time in the camps, and eventual release, after which Berdichevskaya asks her mother if she’ll always be old now. (Ouch; she feels ashamed for asking.) There’s lots of detail about life as a political prisoner, particularly in one of my favorite stories, “Аккордеон” (“The Accordion”), a love story of sorts that shows female prisoners walking to the men’s part of the “zone” for bath day (every other Sunday), detailing how the women primp by using beets and coal as improvised makeup, and telling how the men watch them even though they aren’t supposed to. I wrote “lovely” (underlined twice) about the story for lots of reasons: the mention of distant mountains and, places that have nothing to do with Leninism, Stalinism, criminalism, or people at all; Berdichevskaya’s ease at slipping in prison camp slang, and the correspondence (via air mail, letters flying over fences) between Berdichevskaya’s mother and a certain Boris. And then there’s the gift of an accordion. I have no idea how much is embroidered or embellished in Berdichevskaya’s stories, though that doesn’t matter to me because I loved reading them for how they feel true in the sense of real, meaning based on events that actually happened and had an impact on Berdichevskaya’s life, as well as true in the sense of artistically right. I got so caught up in them that they inhabited me in a nearly physical way, making them feel more like an experience than simple reading. That doesn’t happen very often. A bonus: one story gets tagged for having “Red Moscow” perfume in its title. It’s popular stuff.

I generally enjoy reading Sergei Dovlatov but his Наши (Ours: A Russian Family Album, in Anne Frydman’s translation) was a pleasant surprise even so. I read it for voice reasons (related to my work translating Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope), choosing this particular collection simply because it was the next set of unread stories in one of my Dovlatov volumes. Ours begins with a great-grandfather in the Russian Far East and ends with Dovlatov’s eventual emigration to the United States, serving up portraits of all kinds of other family members in between. My favorite may well be Aunt Mara, who becomes an editor; Tynyanov, Zoshchenko, Forsh, and Alexei Tolstoy (whom she once inadvertently headbutted in the stomach) were among her authors and Dovlatov includes some little literary anecdotes. I also couldn’t resist the stories about a dog named Glasha, a cousin with theater and criminal careers who only functions well in borderline situations, or the story of how Dovlatov meets his wife, Elena, whom he finds in his apartment the morning after a party because the man she’d arrived with got drunk and left her there. Best of all, though, was reading about the birth of their daughter, Katya, whom I know slightly from literary events, on her actual birthday. Ours contains everything I enjoy about Dovlatov: lots of humor (many pages warranted “ha ha” in the margins), plenty of absurd and tragic tinges, and a distinctive easy rhythm in the writing. I highly recommend Dovlatov to non-native readers of Russian since his language is relatively simple in a way that maximizes the meaning and impact of recognizable words, and he creates an intimate, chatty voice that doesn’t talk down to the reader.

Finally, I also enjoyed Sergei Nosov’s “Белые ленточки” (“White Ribbons”), which starts off with a tick bite during a camping trip—“Ксюшу укусил клещ,” a very k-sounding “A tick bit Ksyusha”—and, thanks to Ksyusha’s concern about encephalitis (who could blame her?), evolves into a story about a trip to find medical help in a not-exactly-nearby town where Ksyusha and her companion learn about mysterious white ribbons that have nothing to do with real-life political demonstrations that came up after the story was written. I find the oddities of Nosov’s stories especially interesting, even charming, because he somehow manages to stay in control (just barely!) of his material even when he wanders a fair bit, sometimes veering into slightly occult—in the “hidden” sense for medicine or metaphor—regions. Given the growth of the tick population in my own sweltering Maine and the existence of a tick jar in our house (it even came in handy for a recent dinner guest who wasn’t sure she’d seen a tick), there’s a lot to be said for a wandering story where a tick bite triggers so much action.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received a copy of the Berdichevskaya book from the organizers of the Russian stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you! Sergei Nosov gave me a copy of the story collection with the tick story, thank you again!

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m still waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And then there’s a Vladimir Makanin novella, a long story by Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina, and Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The 2018 Yasnaya Polyana Award Longlist

The contemporary fiction longlist for this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award contains 43 books, many of which have mercifully brief and translatable titles, something that’s always a plus for this reporter. Late-breaking: I discovered, just as I was finishing up this post, that Yasnaya Polyana posted an English-language translation of this entire list.

Since this year’s longlist truly is long and there’s plenty to mention, I’ll get right to it, listing, in Russian alphabetical order, some books I’ve read, several notable books, plus a few books by authors whose names are new to me (marked with asterisks). I can’t say there are any unfamiliar titles that jumped out and begged me to read them, though I can be a bit slow on the uptake with book descriptions, many of which are (annoyingly) cryptic at best. In any case, the shortlist will be announced in September.

  • Vasily Aksyonov’s Была бы дочь Анастасия (Perhaps If There Were a Daughter Anastasia? YP goes for If Only There Had Been a Daughter Anastasia) was a 2018 NatsBest finalist. About nature in Siberia.
  • Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (Accomplices) is a hermetic murder mystery set in a European mountain house/hotel. The flashbacks did me in because they broke the novel’s tension, but I give Vagner credit for her cast of rather annoying film industry characters, their spouses, and their problems.
  • Sana Valiulina’s Не боюсь Синей Бороды (I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard a.k.a. Children of Brezhnev) contains some lovely description and atmosphere but it didn’t quite grab me. I liked the rhythm of the writing, though, so I set it aside to try again later.
  • Marina Vishnevetskaya’s Вечная жизнь Лизы К. (literally The Eternal Life of Liza K.) also wasn’t quite my thing, with, among other things, its blend of love story, office plankton, political demonstrations, and (the final straw) an appearance by SpongeBob SquarePants. A friend enjoyed this one so I was especially disappointed not to.
  • Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (Rainbow and Heather, maybe? SeeLanguagehat’s comments on a previous post) is a Big Book finalist that sounds like it combines multiple stories, one set in the seventeenth century, the other in 2015.
  • *Marina Kudimova’s Бустрофедон (Boustrophedon) makes me curious because of its title… I never knew “boustrophedon” was either a phenomenon or a word. Anyway, this looks like it’s about contemporary life.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dymov) is a low-key family saga sort of novel that I read ages ago and enjoyed very much. I really will post about it soon!
  • *Marina Kulakova’s Столетник Марии и Анны (Maria and Anna’s Agave/Century Plant) is about three generations of women.
  • *Natalya Melyokhina’s Железные люди (People of Iron/Iron People) looks like a collection of short stories about a village after perestroika.
  • *Bolat Ospanov’s Мой прадед-найман (My Great-Grandfather the Naiman) sounds like a family history/saga novel wet in Mongolia.
  • Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Нас украли. История преступлений. (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes) sounds packed with all sorts of contemporary material, too; I keep meaning to get this one because I enjoyed Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night so much and she so rarely writes novels!
  • Aleksei Sal’nikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu) won this year’s NatsBest plus the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) Award. I found it a bit underwhelming, though want to try it again now that it’s out in print form.
  • Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump), another Big Book finalist, is about an athlete who loses his lower extremities in an accident. I read a large chunk of Long Jump and set it aside—the dense metaphors can get a bit exhausting—but definitely plan to finish.
  • Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory, to borrow LARB’s title translation) is another Big Book finalist; this one’s about cultural history, family history, and (of course) memory.
  • Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мир (Recipes for the Creation of the World), also a Big Book finalist, is so nicely summarized in Galina Yuzefovich’s review for Meduza, translated by Hilah Kohen, that I’ll leave the description to them.
  • *Aleksei Shepelev’s Мир-село и его обитатели (The Village of Mir and Its Inhabitants) is apparently about modern-day peasants in the Tambov region. (Tangent: I can’t hear “Tambov” without thinking of this odd earworm of a song from my Moscow years… Warning: click at your own risk.)
  • Sasha Shchipin’s Бог с нами (God Is With Us) concerns the end of the world but wasn’t quite compelling enough to keep me reading, though it’s certainly very genial.
  • Lena Eltang’s Царь велел тебя повесить (The Tsar Ordered Your Hanging) sounds very good, not to mention complex, apparently focusing on a man who’s been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit; he writes letters home from jail.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Not much other than the usual and that I have received several books on the list, in either print or electronic form, and have translated/am translating work by Eltang and Kuznetsov.

Up Next: From my constantly growing (and groaning) “write about” shelf: I think I’ll start with a short story roundup, move on to the Vladimir Makanin novella and a creepy long story by Yelizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina, then finish things off with full-length novels, those being Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

2018’s Big Book Finalists: Eight Books Sized Up for Summer Reading

The Big Book Award announced its eight-book shortlist back on Wednesday and I still haven’t quite figured out what I think of it other than that I’m grateful not to see any megabiographies. On the one hand, I’m glad that there are two women on the list after last year’s list included zero. On the other hand, I’d have loved to have seen a few more unfamiliar names—and more women—on the list. On some happy third hand that I often wish I had, I thank the committee for naming a shortlist that’s close to genuinely short and is (blogger bonus!) composed of fairly translatable titles.

Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order by author surname:

Alexander Arkhangel’sky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau or something of the sort) is set in 1980 Moscow (think: Olympics) and depicts how the main character is “tested” for stability (think: Cold War). Recommended by a friend. Easily beachable at 416 pages with a mass of 384 grams.

Dmitry Bykov’s Июнь (June) is set during 1939-1941 and brings together three characters and their stories (which apparently cover three genres) making the book sound relatively economical at 512 pages and 572 grams. Recommended by a different friend.

Alexei Vinokurov’s Люди черного дракона (People of the Black Dragon) is set along the Amur River (apparently known in Chinese as Black Dragon) around the time of the 1917 revolution. I’d never heard of Vinokurov so this is a mystery book for me. It’s also very nimble at 288 pages with a mass of 366 grams.

Yevgeny Grishkovets’s Театр отчаяния. Отчаянный театр (Theater of Despair. Desperate Theater, I guess) is labeled as a “memoiristic novel.” The book came out very recently and the descriptions are brief, though the book itself is anything but brief at 912 pages. And at 1320 grams (including packaging) it’s certainly not light reading.

Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (Rainbow and Heather, though is this literal?…) is big, too, at 736 pages (massing out at relatively compact 564 grams) and it sounds like it also blends multiple stories, one set in the seventeenth century, the other in 2015. Lots of friends have recommended Yermakov to me over the years so I’m eager to try this one.

Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) concerns a young athlete who loses his lower extremities when he leaps to save a boy from being hit by a car. Though interesting for its portrayal of the long-term aftermath of the accident (the characters aren’t especially sympathetic and there’s a lot of social commentary), I felt bogged down by metaphors and similes around page 150 and put the book on hold. At 512 pages and 460 grams, though, it’s relatively manageable compared to some of these other finalists, plus I am pretty curious about what happens. Also recommended by friends.

Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (I’ll call it In Memory of Memory, as this LARB interview does) is probably the book I’ve heard the most about, meaning that it also comes recommended, as a book about cultural history, family history, and, yes, memory. This sounds like such a thoughtful book that it feels thoroughly uncouth to give its bare statistics: 408 pages, 546 grams.

Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мира (Recipes for the Creation of the World) is so nicely summarized in Galina Yuzefovich’s review for Meduza, translated by Hilah Kohen, that I’ll leave the description to them. I will add, though, that the book’s cover says “От Парижа до Сибири через весь ХХ век” (“From Paris to Siberia, through the entire twentieth century”), putting me in awe of Filimonov for limiting himself to a very efficient 320 pages that mass in at 375 grams.

Yes, this polleny past week made me a little silly…

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Not much other than the usual and that the Slavnikova book was given to me by the organizers of the Russia stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you!

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: a short story roundup, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And then there’s a Vladimir Makanin novella… and whatever I start tonight.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Salnikov and His Petrovs Win NatsBest

Aleksei Salnikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него won the National Bestseller Award today; I called the book The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu when it won the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) award earlier this year. The Petrovs took three NatsBest juror votes, Dmitrii Petrovsky’s Дорогая, я дома (I’m Home, Dear or maybe even Honey, I’m Home) got two, and Maria Labych’s Сука (Bitch) had one. You can watch the NatsBest ceremony on YouTube, here.

Although I reported feeling a bit underwhelmed when I read a large chunk of The Petrovs last year in electronic form, I’m very much looking forward to trying it again in print. I liked the tone and feel of the book, but it just didn’t seem right to read without paper. Among other things, I want very much to try to figure out how to hear the novel’s title.

-Salnikov’s literary agency apparently hasn’t decided on a title yet, either.
-For more on the award and ceremony, see this article in Kommersant by Mikhail Trofimenkov.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, for having translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina.

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. Among others. Plus, in very short order, the Big Book Short list.