Sunday, February 19, 2017

Here I Am to Brighten Your Day! Darkest Russian Literature

I felt a little jolt last week when I read this tweet from The New York Times Book Review:


I knew—just knew—that “darkest novel” in George Saunders’s reading life had to be Russian. And I was right: the book is Russian. But I was wrong about the title: the book he mentions is Lev Tolstoy’s Resurrection, about which he says, “Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” might be the darkest novel I’ve ever read — basically, a slow descent down from privilege and power into the terror and cruelty that comes of poverty and ritual oppression. (I know, it sounds bleak but. . . .)”

I’d say that sums up Resurrection pretty well; I, too, remember it as dark for those same reasons. I read Resurrection in my years before the blog and recommended it in a “forgotten classics” workshop, noting some stylistic differences and common themes with both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, though now, years later, I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what those were…

Saunders hits [sic? is this how it works?] a trifecta for Russian literature in this week’s “By the Book” for the Book Review: he also mentions the narrator of Isaac Babel’s story “In the Basement” as a favorite character and notes that he’s planning to read Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys; the book’s 1992 translation, by Julia and Robin Whitby, was recently reissued by Norton.

On a related note, Babel receives more attention in this interview for Forward, in which Aviya Kushner asks Peter Orner about, as she puts it in her introduction, “how to read in the age of Donald Trump, why Isaac Babel matters so much, and other questions about the connection between literature and survival.” This is about my hundredth reminder that I need to (re)read more Babel, something I’ve been remiss about for, well, decades. Orner, by the way, specifically cites Walter Morrison’s translations of Babel.

But back to the darkest Russian novels ever written… Which novel did I think would be Saunders’s darkest? My second choice was good old F.M. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which gave me unthinkable nightmares after I read the murder scene at bedtime not so long ago. (Do not read that scene just before bed. Please.) Claustrophobia alone would be enough to qualify C&P as dark but that murder scene is brutal. My first guess, though, was Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovyov Family (here’s the New York Review Books page on Natalie Duddington’s translation, complete with blurbs), which I also recommended in that forgotten classics workshop. I didn’t mention claustrophobia in this summary for handouts, but I felt it, intensely, in this book, too. Here’s what I wrote:
Ouch! This is the ultimate book about dysfunctional families. I have to admit that I found it difficult to read at times, both because of obsolete language and the absolute horridness of the characters. But I’m glad that I stuck with this book that Dmitrii Mirskii, an historian of Russian literature, called “the gloomiest in all Russian literature,” particularly because S-Shch has such a knack for showing the way things really were. The rottenness of the gentry is stunning, and I found the ending almost unbearably depressing. Still, I recommend it.
Those books are pretty dark but I think my very darkest book ever would have to be Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs (previous post), which is chernukha—a Russian word for what I’ll just call pitch-black realism—to end all chernukha. It’s unbearably sad and I used “ouch” in that blog post, too. But I loved that book because it’s so suspenseful and so well-composed as it describes a failing family; I’m not surprised at how much praise I’ve heard for The Yeltyshevs from other Russian writers.

Another big contemporary favorite that’s very dark: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s The Devil’s Wheel (Чертово колесо in Russian), which examines heroin addiction and corrupt cops in Tbilisi. Gigolashvili includes lots of dark (of course) humor, plus action, making nearly 800 pages fly by as if they were 80. This book has stuck with me very well since I wrote about it in 2010.

I could add lots more gloomy books to the list but will stop there. Other dark suggestions will, of course, brighten the coming days!

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve translated a bit of Senchin, including excerpts of The Yeltyshevs. Aviya Kushner is a beloved friend and colleague.

Up Next: A combo post about Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, which will include thoughts about the book and Goldberg’s upcoming appearance at a local bookstore. Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I finally finished the other night after slowing down to a glacial reading pace: I think my subconscious just didn’t want me to finish. I suspect part of what I love so much about Kaleidoscope is its combination of dark and light. Eventually: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi¸ which friends brought back from Moscow for me: they both read and enjoyed it before passing it along. This is another brick of a book (700-plus pages) so there may be more potpourri posts in Lizok’s future…

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The 2017 National Bestseller Award Longlist

This year’s National Bestseller Award longlist was announced last week and, as always, it’s fun to look through the list and see who nominated what. This year, 56 nominators nominated a total of 54 books. (I think I counted correctly… this isn’t so difficult, but I do have occasional trouble with these matters…) With so many books, it would be tough to list even half of them, so I’ll pick out a few that sound particularly interesting (to me) and add some titles by authors I’m not familiar with, focusing on books available in printed book form. The last category—which I could rephrase as “discovering new authors”—is, by the way, something Vadim Levental, the prize’s secretary, mentions in his commentary about the list: essentially, NatsBest wants to help readers navigate a sea of books. As always with NatsBest, I’m very much looking forward to reading reviews of the longlisted books. I’ve always enjoyed them because they’re so varied, individual, and informative. Best of all, NatsBest’s new site makes it far easier to find reviews quickly. The shortlist will be announced on April 14; the award ceremony will be held on June 3.

Two books were nominated twice:
  • Dmitrii Novikov’s Голомяное пламя (hmm, the first word is an adjectival form of “голомя,” a Pomor word that means open sea or distant sea… so maybe something like Flame Out at Sea or Flame Over the Open Sea…), which I’ve seen recommended several times already this year, is a book I have a special interest in because Novikov is from Petrozavodsk and writes about the Russian north. Nominated by Natalia Babintseva and Andrei Rudalev.
  • Aleksandr Brener’s Жития убиенных художников (Life Stories [as in lives, in the context of “lives of saints”] of Slain Artists) was nominated by Lyubov Belyatskaya and Ilya Danishevsky. According to the publisher, Hylaea, the book is composed of brief stories/chapters about Brener’s experiences in various places around the world, looking at people, meetings, attachments, impressions… A review by Aleksandr Chantsev makes it sound far more promising!

Books I’m already looking forward to:
  • Anna Babiashkina’s Прежде чем сдохнуть (Before I Croak) has already been translated, by Muireann Maguire for Glas, so it’s easy to leave the description to reviewers Phoebe Taplin and Michael Orthofer. The Russian book is on my shelf; the English version is on my computer, thanks to the author. Nominated by Anna Kozlova.
  • Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland) is a collection of short stories by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed reading in the past; the book was nominated by editor Yulia Kachalkina of Ripol Klassik, which has other books on the longlist. As Levental’s commentary notes, Kachalkina and Elena Shubina—whose imprint for AST have won many awards in recent years and who nominated Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot) for the NatsBest,—both have many nominees on the NatsBest longlist this year.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret Year, though I suspect this is “secret” with a good dose of mysteriousness…) is set during the time of Ivan the Terrible and was nominated by Evgenii Vodolazkin. I’ve enjoyed two of Gigolashvili’s previous books so am looking forward to this one.
  • Figl’-Migl’s Эта страна (This Country), nominated by Pavel Krusanov, is a book I want to know nothing about: it’s enough for me to know that it concerns political prisoners from the early Soviet period. I’ve been waiting for it! F-M won the NatsBest a few years ago.

I could add another five to ten more titles that I’m already interested in for various and sundry reasons—many are by authors I’ve read before and enjoyed, like Eltang, Ivanov, and Remizov—but will just skip to a few authors who are completely new to me:
  • Lyubov Mul’menko’s book, nominated by Konstantin Shavlovsky, was easy to pick because of its title—Веселые истории о панике (Cheery Stories about Panic)—and though the two current reader reviews on Ozon.ru aren’t exactly ecstatic, they mention downsides like postmodernism and feeling they have nothing in common with Mul’menko’s view of life. Those are factors I don’t usually consider negatives.
  • Vladimir Sotnikov’s Улыбка Эммы (Emma’s Smile) was nominated by Maksim Amelin, who sees the novel as a potential intellectual (he also uses the word “existential) bestseller: it’s about a father and son, and covers aspects of Russian history from the 1920s through the 1980s, and is set in several Former Soviet Republics.
  • Moshe Shanin’s Места не столь населенные (hmm, literally something like Places Not So Populated, but I have a strong hunch this title plays on the idiom “места не столь отдаленные,” for which my Lubenskaya phraseology dictionary offers up “(a place of) exile ,” though it can also be used as a term for prison. An article on this interesting idiom.) was nominated by critic Valeria Pustovaya, who calls the book post-village literature. Places contains stories set in the Arkhangel’sk region so there’s my Northern connection again: I’ve visited Arkhangelsk, though only the city, quite a few times.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Also: I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina and know some of the nominators for this year’s award. It’s been a busy weekend so my proofreading abilities are not very strong!

Up Next: Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, covering my thoughts on the book, which I recommend highly, and (if the weather forecast is wrong and there’s no snow…) his upcoming visit to Portland for the launch of book’s paperback edition. Also: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I’m still loving and still making good progress on… This is shaping up to be a year of very long books.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Some Rambling & Rather Random Thoughts on Snegirev’s Vera, a.k.a. Faith

The back cover of my edition of Alexander Snegirev’s Вера—the title is Vera in Russian, Faith in English—describes the book as a “роман-метафора,” literally a “novel-metaphor.” Vera, which won the 2015 Russian Booker Prize, (when, yes, I really, truly shouted “Snegirev” after I read he’d won…), is a novel that feels both painfully real and a novel whose metaphors feel painful as well as surreal, all served up in Snegirev’s story of a young woman’s life, faith, and attempts at love. I can’t say that Vera’s particularly pleasant to read—there are unsavory characters, dense language, and painful situations that have the real-but-unreal sense I mentioned above—but I have tremendous respect for Snegirev for being able to pull off the novel. I’ve read several of his books now—I thoroughly enjoyed both Petroleum Venus (previous post) and Vanity (previous post)—as well as a number of his stories of varying length. They were all good but Vera is a big step forward for him as a writer. Respect is often worth a lot more than likability.

I think the big reason Vera succeeds is that Snegirev teaches his reader how to read the novel from the very start, establishing tone and atmosphere. On page three, for example, theres this: “В начале самой страшной войны в истории человечества нелюбимого мужа Катерины призвали.” (“At the beginning of the most dreadful war in the history of mankind, Katerina’s unloved husband was called up [for military service].”) The characters are Vera’s grandparents and the war is World War 2. Vera is later referred to as “our heroine” and touches of conscious storytelling and myth set the book outside what I’d consider a real reality. Then there’s the matter of the language, language that some reviewers have compared to Andrei Platonov’s. Certainly the description of pizza (I’ll just offer a rough translation) as an Italian flour-based round/circle mounded with vegetables and meat, a concoction that’s quickly confirmed to be pizza, gives a sense of Snegirev’s play with language, language that’s so dense that I limited my readings to small chunks and (though I don’t remember her exact words) that one colleague, a native speaker of Russian, likened reading Vera to slogging through mud or mire. There is, however, a fair bit of dark humor.

But. But sometimes I like a good slog. And Snegirev’s novel-metaphor-slog creates a Vera who represents her time, a post-Soviet time in which Vera goes to political protests in search of men (one of my notes says “gussies self up for a protest”) and when baseball bats are used as weapons. What’s perhaps most important, though, is Vera’s body, and here I’m grateful to Sam Sacks’s “Fiction Chronicle” in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago for putting into words something I’d sensed in Vera but hadn’t quite formulated for myself, despite having noticed it in other novels, too. In discussing Han Kang’s Human Acts (translated by Deborah Smith), Sacks refers to fiction that “frames the human body as a site of political violence and protest,” something Han does to tremendous effect in The Vegetarian, too. (Side note: I haven’t read Human Acts but I have read The Vegetarian, a Booker International winner which, like Vera, I can’t say I enjoyed but had to finish and have to respect, both as a novel and for Smith’s translation. Also: I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, where the violence against the body isn’t exactly political but where the descriptions of pain, much of it self-inflicted, make me flinch and twinge and gasp. There’s a sense of concrete/abstract and harsh reality/metaphor there, too, that reminds me of Vera and The Vegetarian, despite how different the books seem.)

In Vera, Vera/Faith is attacked early on in a church and she attempts to defend (I’ll paraphrase again) what is usually called [her] honor. Things go from bad to worse over the years and Vera eventually loses, among other things, the ability to see all of herself in the mirror. It’s helpful here to remember that Vera isn’t just a novel, it’s a metaphor, too, particularly since Snegirev carries his metaphors further, to their logical conclusions, so there’s not much of Vera/Faith left at all, and Vera’s life is closely tied to both religion and faith, as well as changes in Russia during the post-Soviet era.

When I think back to reading Vera, which I finished some time ago, several things particularly stick with me: working my way through the dense language, details from Russian history and life that give Vera that “real” layer I mentioned at the start, and, more than anything else, Vera’s physical and psychological pain, which felt both real (that word again!) and metaphorical, as well as integrally and intensely related to Snegirev’s language and picture of Russia. I hadn’t read all of Vera when Snegirev won the Booker—I read about 15-20 pages, electronically, before deciding I needed to read Vera on paper—but now I feel all the happier that I shouted his name when he won. Not all good books are pleasant or cozy or easy to describe, but I have tremendous respect (that word again, too) for complex books that work thanks to consistent poetics. In the end, I find that respect a lot more pleasant than an easy, cozy book, particularly when it’s such a pleasure to watch Snegirev’s writing develop.

Also: I was sad to learn yesterday that actor John Hurt died. Among his many roles, Hurt played Raskolnikov in the BBC’s 1979 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, which I watched as a teenager, both at home and at school, where my English teacher showed it to my class when we were reading the novel. I still see Hurt’s face as Raskolnikov as I reread the book now.

Disclaimers: I’ve known Alexander Snegirev since we met at BookExpo America in 2012; he sent me an electronic edition of Vera.

Up Next: Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, covering my thoughts on the book, which I recommend highly, and his upcoming visit to Portland for the launch of book’s paperback edition. Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I’m still loving, more than 500 pages in…

Thursday, January 26, 2017

NOSE Award Goes to Boris Lego, a.k.a. Oleg Zobern

The NOSE Award was presented to Boris Lego on Tuesday for his Сумеречные рассказы (Dusky Stories or Twilight Stories), a book I described in previous posts as “a collection of nineteen Russian Gothic stories; a cover blurb calls it the scariest book of the year…” One NOSE juror apparently called the stories “trash” during (public) deliberations; that cheery note, and others, are here, on the Год литературы site.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story for those who read Russian literature in English translation is that Boris Lego is a pseudonym for Oleg Zobern, a name I’ve known since his story “Шестая дорожка Бреговича” (“Bregovich’s Sixth Journey” scroll down), appeared in the anthology Rasskazy, in Keith Gessen’s translation. I wrote about Rasskazy here.

The winner of reader voting was Igor Sakhnovsky’s Свобода по умолчанию, (Freedom by Default, I guess?), which was on the NOSE longlist but not the shortlist.

For more on the NOSE Award debates that determined the winner, check out Konstantin Milchin’s article for TASS. Apparently Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope was also a favorite with jurors and the expert panel. I’ve been enjoying Kaleidoscope very much and, given some of the weak finalists I read (or attempted to read) for the Big Book, I’m very surprised (I think even “shocked” would fit) Kaleidoscope didn’t make more shortlists. For more on the NOSE, here’s Elena Rybakova for Colta, in which she praises the shortlisted books by Kobrin, Kuznetsov, and Petrova but doesn’t even mention the winner. 

Up Next: Alexander Snegirev’s Vera.

Disclaimers: The usual plus much of my translation work is funded by grants, including from the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation's Transcript Program. The NOSE Award is also a program of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Weirdly Enjoyable Ant King

I’d intended to include Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Муравьиный царь (The Ant King) in my 2016 year-end post, listing it as the weirdest book I read last year… but then, in all my December 31, year-end hurry, well, I simply forgot. The Ant King is weird and wonderful in a fun, postmodern way—I love weird, it can carry me away—and it’s my favorite, so far, of all the books I brought back from Moscow last year, though I’m now thoroughly enjoying Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which is also slightly weird, not to mention, to various degrees, enjoyable, wonderful, and postmodern, depending on the individual chapter/story.

Part of what makes The Ant King peculiar is that the first part—a first-person narrative from an architect named Lena—kept me reading despite not being especially interesting or unusual. Lena tells of all sorts of family hell, flashing back to childhood, as well telling of present-day legal issues related to a building failure. Most important, she describes two family vacations, one in her childhood, the other in adulthood: both involve her adopted brother (intimations of incest) and the adult vacation includes (but of course!) a fling with a lifeguard in red shorts generally referred to as Mikhalych, a name that’s a slightly abbreviated patronymic. Maybe family vacations deserve more credit as plot elements.

The second half of the book is a third-person narrative that focuses much more on Mikhalych, who’s essentially the novel’s title character—ant kings, according to the text, which I’ll translate loosely here, fertilize the queen then die as unneeded organisms that have done their job—so it’s interesting that he’s known by his patronymic. Though the book’s ending doesn’t make Mikhalych’s fate clear, it is clear that he did his ant king biological duty: he, Lena, their baby, Lena’s teenage son, and Mikhalych’s treasured tank of tranquilizing fish all live together. I think the best part of the book is Mikhalych’s car journey through a blizzard—this wacked-out trip reminds me a bit of Vladimir Sorokin’s Blizzard (previous post) but Aflatuni’s journey feels far fresher to me—to bring his mother to a gerontozorii, isolated housing for geronty, people who become immortal (and dangerous) from rogue sleeping pills.

I suppose the juxtaposition of the generally realistic first narration with the rather odd surrealistic portion of the second narration is a big part of what makes The Ant King feel fresh to me, particularly because Aflatuni slathers on a thick layer of (oh, happiness!) storybook motifs that make me want to pull out my old notes on Vladimir Propp. Among them are Old King Cole, Baba Yaga, vampires, and Kolobok, a Gingerbread Man-like character who escapes his grandparents. Mikhalych’s geront mother even reinvents the Kolobok story during the car ride. That ride, by the way, brings us to locales off the cell phone grid (danger!), the River Beda (beda is trouble: the Oxford Russian Dictionary offers up “misfortune” and “calamity”), and, of course, the forest. Plus there are weird cops, the story of Mikhalych’s father being hit by lightning, and a million other things, including the gerontozorii itself, a monastery (there is a runaway, a twist on Kolobok, here), not to mention waxen-faced geronty who approach the car. The latter reminded me of Night of the Living Dead.

If you were to ask me what I think all this amounts to, I’m not quite sure how I’d answer… beyond fun reading that made me think about Propp, archetypes, dying, and society. That’s already a lot: this is yet another short-but-dense text of a book I’d love to read again (or, honestly, translate, to really get at all the connections…). What stands out most for me is how Aflatuni depicts family and, hmm, the structure and order of life and communities. Mikhalych, for example, analyzes his relationship with Lena as if they were ant colony members, Lena’s parents have marital difficulties, the sibling situation is uncomfortable at best, and then there’s the question of isolation at the gerontozorii and the monastery. That layer, together with all the Proppesque motifs, which of course often include family, sometimes feel updated (a term I don’t much like flashes here: “paradigm shift”) for the present day—combining the deep, dark forest as a place to disappear with going off the cell phone grid is just perfect, as is the immortality-giving drug that shows that better living does not always come through chemistry—lend the book’s characters a beautifully motley collection of traits, meanings, and motives from folk motifs, myth, and contemporary life. It’s a fitting way to examine what’s (sur)real and look at patterns. I’m now very much looking forward to Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi.

Since we mentioned ants: Shelley Fairweather-Vega’s translation of Hamid Ismailov’s story “The Dervish and the Mermaid” is in Image magazine, here. The connection: the story is from Ismailov’s (currently unpublished) novel Gaya, Queen of Ants, written in Uzbek. (Aflatuni is also from Uzbekistan.)

Another ant reference: I failed in my attempt to finish the Strugatsky Brothers’ Жук в муравейнике (Beetle in the Anthill). Though I enjoyed aspects of an investigator’s work tracking someone down—futuristic devices for translation and communication were kind of fun—the Strugatskys’ blend of corny humor and interplanetary travel, either of which sometimes work for me on its own, just didn’t hold me. This must be the fourth or fifth of their books I’ve tried; I read more than half. I’ll keep trying for another one or two…

Up Next: That roundup post I keep talking about, Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, Nose Award winners, and Plot Project bits on reading Crime and Punishment, which I may well include as add-ons to my regular posts. I’m also thinking about a Pushkin Project for later in the year: that would combine a reading of Andrei Sinyavsky’s Strolls with Pushkin—which I received from the Russian Library/Columbia University Press in Slava I. Yastremsky and Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy’s translation—with reading Pushkin works Sinyavsky mentions. It looks like the perfect starting point for some remedial work on my knowledge of Pushkin.