Sunday, November 24, 2019

Russian-to-English Translations for 2019

It’s not quite December but I’ve decided to post this year’s list of new Russian-to-English translations. If I’ve counted correctly (something I cannot guarantee), the list contains 49 50 52 books. I’m sure that number will change (upward, I hope) in the coming days. And weeks, months, and years: these lists are never finished.

This year’s total is down from last year’s 67 (previous post) but still up a bit from 2017’s 47 (previous post). One reason for the decrease is that I’m not listing new reprints/editions of existing translations. Another factor [which I’ve edited heavily] that probably has more of a psychological effect than a statistical effect at this point: I noticed that Glagoslav looks to have released in 2019 a couple of titles that were on lists in past years (such as the Grishkovets book below, which was first listed in 2017) and thus (if only in my twisted perception as compiler of these lists!) even if numbers aren’t that different, it appears there are fewer from-the-Russian titles this year since some of them have long been familiar; at the same time, it also appears they’re increasing their work on translations from other languages, though I confess I don’t track those translations closely enough to say this is anything but my own impression. I also wonder if those non-Russian titles are featured more prominently after Glagoslav changed its site design. Which leads me to another point... Finally, some publishers have reworked their sites and it sometimes feels like there were fewer pages specifically dedicated to new releases, making them harder to fine; of course many sites’ search functions don’t always return useful lists when asked about “Russia” or “Russian.” All this means I’m pretty content finding forty-nine books. I should also add that I’ve been lax about the tedious task of moving books on the 2018 list that apparently (“apparently” since soft releases seem to have become more common) weren’t released until 2019; that probably gives a plus/minus factor of several books. (I may shift some of those later but for now my preferred form of correction has been on adding titles to old posts after learning of books I missed in years past.)

In terms of positives for 2019, it’s nice to see more children’s books again this year. (Two series!) I’m disappointed, though, that the share of books translated by women doesn’t seem to have risen much, though at least it doesn’t look it’s dropped. Fifteen out of forty-four books authored by only one person were written by women and at least four out of the five written by “various” had at least one woman on the author list. These lists are dynamic enough – not to mention plenty incomplete – that I wouldn’t want to make too much of any of these data. I was going to add that I’m disappointed that there aren’t more works of contemporary Russian fiction on the list. But then I scrolled down and realized the variety is better than I thought. And 2020 already looks interesting, too; I’ve started a list for next year.

As in past years, I have to credit ongoing grant programs from the Institute of Translation and the Prokhorov Fund’s Transcript Program for helping to fund some of the translations on the list. And for making it a little easier to compile my annual lists. This year I also had a nice assist from a list put together by Hilah Kohen for Meduza: in January I shared my then-nascent 2019 list with her when she was gathering titles for a very eclectic list of Russia-related books, many of which are translations. She credits lots of our colleagues for contributing suggestions and I highly recommend browsing her list. Some of the publication dates have slipped but that just gives us something to look forward to in 2020.

I’ll finish, as usual, with some caveats and admin notes related to the list. This list is just a start; I’m always happy to add titles I’ve missed. Please e-mail me with changes/errors or additions; my address is on the sidebar. NB: I now list only new translations. I’ve linked titles on the list to publishers’ pages wherever possible. I’ll place a link to this post on the sidebar of the blog for easy reference. I’m taking names and titles for 2020 now, so please start sending them in. Finally, don’t forget the Self-Published Translation post: If you have a book to add, please add it in a comment on that page, here, and I’ll be happy to approve it.

Enjoy your reading!

Aleshkovsky, Yuz: Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage, translated by Duffield White, edited by Susanne Fusso; Columbia University Press, Russian Library, June 2019.

Alexievich, Svetlana: Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; Penguin, July 2019.

(Brianchaninov) St. Ignatius : The Refuge: Anchoring the Soul in God, translated by Nicholas Kotar; Holy Trinity Publications, December 2019.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor: Crime and Punishment, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and edited by Sarah J. Young; Oxford University Press, June 2019.

Egunov-Nikolev, Andrei: Beyond Tula: A Soviet Pastoral, translated by Ainsley Morse; Academic Studies Press, May 2019.

Gandlevsky, Sergey: Illegible, translated by Suzanne Fusso; Cornell University Press, November 2019. Background on this novel.

Gogol, Nikolai: And the Earth Will Sit on the Moon, translated by Oliver Ready; Pushkin Press, December 2019.

Gorbachev, Mikhail: On My Country and the World, translated by George Shriver; Columbia University Press, December 2019.

(Gribanovsky) Metropolitan Anastasy: Conversations With My Heart: Contemplations on God and the World, translated by Nicholas Kotar; Holy Trinity Publications, 2019.

Grishkovets, Evgeni: The Hemingway Game, translated by Steven Volynets; Glagoslav Publications, 2019.

Grossman, Vasily: Stalingrad, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler; New York Review Books, June 2019.

Kandinsky, Wassily: Sounds, translated and introduced by Elizabeth R. Napier; Yale University Press, October 2019.

Khemlin, Margarita: Klotsvog, translated by Lisa C. Hayden; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, August 2019.

Khodasevich, Vladislav: Necropolis, translated by Sarah Vitali; Columbia University Press, Russian Library, May 2019.

Kollontai, Alexandra: Writing Through Struggle, translated by Cathy Porter; Haymarket. (I’m not sure what happened to this title and am going to strike it for now.)

Lebedev, Sergei: The Goose Fritz, translated by Antonina W. Bouis; New Vessel Press, 2019.

Litvina, Alexandra: The Apartment: A Century of Russian History, translated by Antonina W. Bouis; Abrams Books for Young Readers, November 2019. Illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya. This looks like a good one for kids of all ages!

Medvedev, Sergei: The Return of the Russian Leviathan, translated by Stephen Dalziel; Polity Press, November 2019.


Medvedeva, Doba-Mera: Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva, translated by Alice Nakhimovsky, edited by Nakhimovsky and Michael Beizer; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Monastyrski, Andrei: Elementary Poetry, translated by Brian Droitcour and Yelena Kalinsky with a preface by Boris Groys; Ugly Duckling Presse, December 2019.

Novikov, Dmitry: A Flame Out at Sea, translated by Christopher Culver; Glagoslav Publications, 2019.

Osipov, Maxim: Rock, Paper, Scissors, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson; New York Review Books, April 2019.

Pasternak, Boris: Doctor Zhivago, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater; The Folio Society, 2019. (This is a limited special edition book.)

Pavlova, Karolina: A Double Life, translated by Barbara Heldt; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, August 2019.

Poliakova, Zinaida: A Jewish Woman of Distinction: The Life and Diaries of Zinaida Poliakova, by ChaeRan Y. Freeze and translated by Gregory L. Freeze; Brandeis University Press, 2019. This book is a bit of a cheat since it’s not just translated material but it sounds too interesting to leave off the list!

Polonskaya, Anzhelina: To the Ashes, translated by Andrew Wachtel; Zephyr Press, 2019.

Rubina, Dina: Leonardo’s Handwriting, translated by Melanie Moore; Glagoslav Publications, late 2019.

Savinkov, Boris: Pale Horse, translated by Michael R. Katz; University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019.

Sentsov, Oleg: Life Went on Anyway, translated by Uilleam Blacker; Deep Vellum, October 2019.

Slavnikova, Olga: The Man Who Couldn’t Die, translated by Marian Schwartz; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, January 2019.

Soloviev, Vladimir: The Karamazov Correspondence: Letters of Vladimir S. Soloviev, translated by Vladimir Wozniuk; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 2, translated by Marian Schwartz; University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.

Starobinets, Anna: A Predator’s Rights: A Beastly Crimes Book, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover, January 2019

Starobinets, Anna: Claws of Rage, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover, September 2019. More beastly crimes.

Starobinets, Anna: The Plucker, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover, October 2019. Beastly crimes again!

Stonov, Dmitry: The Raskin Family, translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

(Taushev), Archbishop Averky : Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, translated by Nicholas Kotar, edited by Vitaly Permiakov; Holy Trinity Publications, 2019.

Tazhi, Aigerim: Paper-Thin Skin, translated by James Kates; Zephyr Press, May 2019.

Tolstoy, Leo: Lives and Deaths, translated by Boris Dralyuk; Pushkin Press, November 2019.

Tretyakov, Sergei: I Want a Baby and Other Plays, translated by Robert Leach and Stephen Holland; Glagoslav Publications, 2019.

Tynianov, Yuri: Permanent Evolution: Selected Essays on Literature, Theory and Film, translated by Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko, with an introduction by Daria Khitrova; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Ulitskaya, Ludmila: Jacob’s Ladder¸ translated by Polly Gannon; FSG, July 2019.

Utkin, Alexander: The Water Spirit, translated by Lada Morozova; Nobrow, 2019. This is a graphic novel, the second in the “Gamayun Tales” series, for children, drawn and written by Utkin.

Utkin, Alexander: Tyna of the Lake, translated by Lada Morozova; Nobrow, 2019. A third installment of “Gamayun Tales.”

Various: New Russian Drama, edited by Maksim Hanukai and Susanna Weygandt; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, August 2019.

Various: The Predictability of the Past: Three Contemporary Russian Plays, translated and edited by Alexander Rojavin; Three String Books/Slavica, 2019.

Various: 21: Russian Short Prose from an Odd Century, edited by Mark Lipovetsky and translated by a very good “various”; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Various: A Life Replaced, written/translated by Olga Livshin; Poets & Traitors Press, 2019. Original poetry by Livshin along with her translations of Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman.

Various: Russian Stories, edited by Christopher Keller, translator list unclear; Everyman’s Library, 2019. This collection includes 25 stories, “Pushkin and Gogol to Tatyana Tolstaya and Svetlana Alexievich.”

Yakhina, Guzel: Zuleikha, translated by Lisa Hayden; Oneworld Publications, February 2019.

Yesenin, Sergei: The Last Poet of the Village, translated by Anton Yakovlev; Sensitive Skin Books, 2019. A bilingual book.

Zviagentsev, Alexander: The Nuremberg Trials, translated by Christopher Culver; Glagoslav, 2019.

Zygar, Mikhail: Eyewitness 1917: The Russian Revolution as it Happened, translated by Rose France and Lev Shtutin, I believe; Fontanka, 2019. Click through on the title link (which will take you to Pushkin House) to learn more about this book, which should appeal to anyone who enjoyed Project 1917.

!!Bonus Listings!!
I can’t help but include a few bonus listings from Central Asian languages, translated by either Shelley Fairweather-Vega or Christopher Fort. I want to add that Shelley (a friend and colleague) translates from the Russian, Uzbek, and Kazakh, and translated each of the books listed below using multiple versions that always included either Uzbek or Kazakh manuscripts. There’s an interesting essay by Fort about his translation work on Cho’lpon here; [edit] see below for his comment noting another book.

Asemkulov, Talasbek: A Life at Noon, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Three String Books/Slavica, 2019. A Kazakh novel.

Ismailov, Hamid: Gaia, Queen of Ants, translated from the Uzbek by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Syracuse University Press, 2019.

Ismailov, Hamid: Of Strangers and Bees, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Tilted Axis Press, 2019.

Cho’lpon, Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li: Day and Night, translated from the Uzbek by Christopher Fort; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Other bonuses: Academic Studies Press has a sampler available for download here; it includes excerpts from a nice combination of ASP’s books on my 2018 and 2019 lists… Cambridge University Press partnered with the National Bureau of Translations in Kazakhstan to produce anthologies of works of Kazakh poetry and prose that were translated into the English from the Russian (after, in some/many cases, having been translated from the Kazakh to the Russian); the anthologies were commissioned by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Culture and Sport and are available for free download… and, finally, to end on an unusual note, poet and translator Katherine Young translated a very interesting-looking calendar: Boris Pasternak: A Poetic Calendar 2020, from B.S.G.-Press Book Company. The calendar contains poems as well as commentary and background by Natalya Ivanova. There’s an article about the Russian-language version of the calendar here.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. I’ve received some of the books on the list from publishers and/or translators and I know many of the translators. Thank you to Hilah Kohen for compiling her list for Meduza! (I wish I’d remembered to use it earlier in my collection process!)

Up Next: Biographies (Brik and Erofeev), two books in English (soon, really!), and then a novel.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Girls Gone Missing: Kozlova’s Rurik and Barinova’s Eve

Where to start? The basics, I suppose: Anna Kozlova’s Рюрик (Rurik) and Liubov Barinova’s Ева (Eve) are both books about young women who disappear, one forever, the other for a hiatus of sorts. Both novels are also described by some readers (and/or publicists!) as thrillers, though after corresponding with a Russian colleague a bit about Eve, I suppose something like “psychological dramas” is probably more apt. Sometimes I think “thriller” puts too much pressure on a book to be a page-turner that has to be read in one sitting. Not that that’s an option for me, given how slowly I read Russian, but Rurik and Eve kept me up at night because I wanted to find out what happened to Marta (in Rurik), Eve (in Eve), and their family members.

Despite the common element of suspense and missing women, the books couldn’t be more different in terms of plot, atmosphere, and tone. I’ve described Rurik as “edgy” (on the first page, there’s mention of how people “пьют, ссут и блюют” – “drink, piss, and puke” – on local trains: the three words transliterate as pyut, ssut, blyuyut, which sounds great but obviously smells awful) with plenty of drinking, sex, a parrot named Rurik, motorcycle riding, and a weird and horrid death. Rurik has tons of verve and a bit of grit, too; it’s both wise and wiseass. It’s a very here-and-now novel examining social mores and wealth (the motorcycle is a BMW, for example, and there’s overseas vacationing) while also depicting the role of the media and Internet in modern life after Marta, a teenager who’s vanished, hitches a ride north with a motorcyclist. She later escapes him (going into the woods, ah, favorite Russian motif!), too, giving two reasons for suspense: a) finding out why she fled the first time and b) wondering if she’ll survive the forest. (Where I was glad there were good insect mentions.) The cast also includes a very modern journalist, a woman who figures everything out, and (of course) there’s a dysfunctional family background.

As there is in Eve: Eve and her brother Herman live with their cold army officer of a father who first has a soldier nanny them – when they go with the soldier into the forest (the forest again!) to cut a holiday tree, Herman’s foot is severely injured by a trap – but then hands them over to their grandmother for care. As an adult, Eve is killed and then, as payback, Herman kidnaps her killers’ daughter and raises her by himself. Told in two timelines, the main source of suspense for me in Eve was in learning how Eve died, finding out Herman’s deep-seated motivations, and seeing what consequences he might face. Meaning: Will he eventually be caught? And why were Eve and Herman so close? Barinova’s writing and plotting are pretty traditional and with Eve’s overall slice of time covering the late Soviet period until the present day, it has a grayer feel, in part because Herman, who becomes a doctor, can’t afford a BMW or overseas travel but also because the novel itself is quieter than Rurik, which felt pretty raucous in many ways. Eve is just plain bleak, though not so bleak that I’d call it chernukha, the dark, dark brand of realism I used to read so much of.

Neither Eve nor Rurik is perfect – both suffer from overly long passages in the middle (thankfully, though, there are no big muddles in the middle) and I thought the feel of much of Eve’s denouement departed too much from the textual logic of everything that preceded it, though the very, very end felt fitting – but, as I’ve mentioned, both books kept me up late, happily reading and wanting to know what would happen next, as decent psychological-dramas-that-verge-on-thrillerdom should. Having relatively recently read Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which I had to ration out to myself; Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, which I devoured in one evening (in Sam Taylor’s smooth translation); and the beginning of Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, which is currently keeping me plodding noirishly on the treadmill, I think it’s safe to say I love novels that play with literary and genre norms, blending suspense and, yes, psychological drama with social issues like loneliness, alcoholism, and class while also straddling the (artificial) boundaries between the (artificial) lands of genre fiction and literary fiction.

Rurik and Eve are similar to those books I read in English: there are broken families and broken social fabrics that essentially generate orphandom in and around transitional times for contemporary Russia, meaning the two books describe personal and social issues while also playing a little with literary and genre norms. Best of all, they’re part of a growing pile of books by youngish writers (Eve is Barinova’s debut) who aren’t afraid to blend – particularly in Kozlova’s case – everything from bits of mysticism and folklore to social commentary and crime. I think I was especially grateful to read two new releases that are so focused on the present-day and late Soviet period rather than the first half of the twentieth century. And to appreciate Kozlova’s sassy delivery, acidic irony, and 18+ content as well as Barinova’s calm, almost plodding and meditative restraint. My biggest regret is that Rurik didn’t make any award shortlists: even with the slight sagginess I mentioned, Rurik feels better composed and more relevant (and interesting!) than some of this year’s other Big Book finalists. I have to wonder if the juries choosing finalists didn’t much admire the edginess and sassiness I so happily lapped up.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received an electronic copy of Eve from Barinova’s literary agency BGS, for whom I have translated a few brief excerpts of Eve. I bought my copy of Rurik, which a friend brought to me from Moscow. I do want to mention how nice this Phantom Press edition is, thanks to Andrei Bondarenko’s sleek design (which both looked nice and made the text especially reader-friendly for tired end-of-the-day eyes) and thick, creamy paper. Bondarenko’s designs always have nice touches: Alisa Ganieva’s long biography of Lilya Brik (published by Molodaya Gvardia, which opted for nice paper, too) was also especially easy on the eyes, both in terms of aesthetics and ease of reading, thanks to Bondarenko’s body text format and graphic elements. Good book design matters.

Up Next: The two books in English I keep promising, Ganieva’s Lilya Brik biography, a biography of Venedikt Yerofeyev, and Evgeny Chizhov’s new book about nostalgia and memory, which I just started.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

2019-2020 NOS(E) Award Shortlists

I so utterly forgot that the NOS(E) Award shortlists would be announced on Halloween – “are they trick or are they treat?” really is the question, I suppose – that I thought a lot about Anna Kozlova’s Rurik and Liubov Barinova’s Eve all week because I’d intended to write about them. I’ll keep thinking (and saving) those thoughts for next week.

As was the case last season, NOS(E) will award two prizes in early 2020: one named by what I think of as the regular jury (members listed here; their shortlist is here) and the other determined by the critical academy (members listed here; their shortlist is here). Both this season’s lists are a bit short on books that sounded particularly appealing to me (e.g. Nikitin’s Про папу, About Papa, the book that’s supposed to make people happy, didn’t make it, meaning I now feel even more driven to read it and determine its joy factor…) and there aren’t many women on either list. (Not that three out of sixteen for the longlist is very good, it’s pretty awful and it really makes me wonder what was nominated.) Plus there’s the usual mishmash of disparate genres, but, well, who am I to complain about that? If I want to like absolutely all of an award’s rules and practices, plus know what books were nominated, I’d have to invent my own award. Hm.

On that all too quixotic note, here are four books that made both lists:
  • Nikolai Kononov: Восстание (Uprising) is a “documentary novel” apparently inspired by the life of Sergei Solovyov, one of the organizers of the Norilsk camp uprising. It’s on my shelf.
  • Aleksandr Dolinin: Комментарий к роману Владимира Набокова Дар(Commentary on Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel The Gift) is apparently exactly what the title says it is. (Sample)
  • Alexander Stesin: Нью-йоркский обход (something like New York Rounds) concerns a doctor’s observations of work with very diverse patients in New York and New Delhi. (Sample) (Review)
  • Linor Goralik: Все, способные дышать дыхание (literally something like All Capable of Breathing a Breath, perhaps? Or maybe “Everybody”? I’m interested in figuring out how to read this title.) The brief description introducing this excerpt says the book concerns a country that’s facing a huge catastrophe and discovers that empathy can be a double-edged sword. A Big Book finalist, too, a book that, alas, I’ve had a very hard time trying to get into.
There are four other books on the regular jury’s shortlist:
  • Kirill Kobrin: Поднебесный экспресс (The Celestial Express) sounds like an interesting sort-of-but-not-really-a-detective-novel set on a direct train trip (seventeen days!) from China to London.
  • Daniil Turovskii: Вторжение. Краткая история русских хакеров (Interference. A Brief History of Russian Hackers. Or maybe Break In? I’m not sure if this concerns the 2016 elections in the US or not.) is a journalist’s account of what’s mentioned in the title. (Sample)
  • Evgenii Chizhov: Собиратель рая (The Collector of Heaven? Maybe something more like Collecting Heaven?) concerns a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who often leaves the house and gets lost, and her son (nicknamed “King” because he’s flea market royalty) who goes out to find her. It’s about memory, nostalgia, and people who came of age in the 1990s. I enjoyed Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Translation (previous post) and am looking forward to this book, which is on its way to me. (Sample) (Review)
  • Sofia Sinitskaya: Мироныч, дырник и жеможаха. Рассказы о родине (Mironych, Hole-Worshippers, and ???. Stories About the Motherland. Oh, that “жеможаха” is difficult, please see my previous (longlist) post, including comments for more in it!) contains three novellas set in three separate times: the Great Terror, the late eighteenth century, and the turn of the twenty-first century. The book’s description claims (in my very loose account!) that Sinitskaya’s following in the tracks of Gogol and (even more exciting) Vaginov… (Review) (Sample)
The other books on the critical jury’s shortlist are:
  • Aleksandr Skidan: In Путеводитель по N. (A Guidebook to N.) the N. seems to stand for Nietzsche! :) In this mock autobiography, N. speaks in the voices of luminaries like Rilke, Dostoevsky, and Proust. Hm.
  • Aleksei Polyarinov: Центр тяжести (Center of Gravity) sounds like a long (though Labirint says it’s only 480 pages so I’ll read it in ten days, ha ha, ha ha) and (potentially) formally complex novel about a journalist, a hacker, and an artist. (Review
  • Pavel Peppershtein: Тайна нашего времени (Secret of Our Time) is a collection of sixteen stories with the author’s illustrations, published by Garage. I’ve been meaning to read Peppershtein’s fiction for years, after reading (and later translating a text) about his work with Inspection Medical Hermeneutics.

Disclaimers: The usual. I had a meddlesome (but very sweet) cat on my lap while piecing these lists together and hope I found and deleted all her additions to the post.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik, which I’m continuing to enjoy (and almost sad to be finishing), and the very interesting Big Book finalist biography of Venedikt Erofeev by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky, where (to my surprise) I think I’ve been enjoying the biographical chapters more than the critical chapters because they’re creating such a vivid portrait of Erofeev.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Big Book 3: Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise

Hm. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Рай земной (Earthly Paradise) left me at something of a loss. After reading it during the summer, I referred to it as “a bit confused” in an “Up Next” section. I’ll stick with that assessment, but I think I’ll append that analysis with a line from novelist Daniel Orlov’s July review on godliteratury.ru, which states things even more directly: “Увы, получился очень хорошо написанный и очень скучный роман.” Which means that, alas, it turned out to be a very well written but very boring novel.

Books like Earthly Paradise leave me at a loss largely because they leave so little trace, even immediately after finishing. (Perhaps that’s what leaves the impression of “boring”?) My problems with Earthly Paradise arise largely because Aflatuni does certain things (like write!) pretty well but the book’s individual elements – plotlines, characters, overall feel, thematic motifs – just don’t meld enough to create what I consider a cohesive and satisfying novel. This particularly hurts after his Ant King (previous post), where two very different sections somehow, mysteriously, fit together with a whole lot of verve.

Given the mismatch (or maybe mishmash?) of narrative lines and structure, Earthly Paradise read best to me as the story of a friendship between two women – Plyusha and Natalie – who both live in a building next to a site where Poles were shot during the 1930s. There is also a thick thread that (I’ll admit) made me glaze over so much that I barely remember it: it involves a manuscript by a Polish Orthodox priest. (The manuscript tore me away from plotlines interested me more.) There are also lots of mentions of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, Adam and Eve, and other religion-related topics in the Plyusha/Natalie portions of the book. Those felt more organic to me than the manuscript itself thanks to, for example, conversations, but neither the biblical references nor the priest’s spirit could knit the novel together for me. As so often happens in novels (at least for my picky reading habits), Aflatuni does very nicely creating vivid, memorable characters but fails to place them within a framework that allows a vivid, memorable novel to develop.

Plyusha, Natalie, their characteristic tics, and their friendship were what kept me reading. Plyusha works with archives at a museum that focuses on political repression and she crochets little doilies for everybody. She feels like she’s an ear (large and warm!) to listen to Natalie, who’s more of a livewire and has read War and Peace three times. (How could I not like her after that!?) As if W&P weren’t enough, Natalie is even accused of being an instrument of the dark side. Plyusha’s mother sells Herbalife. Natalie takes karate lessons. Plyusha has an odd relationship with her former professor, Natalie doesn’t do well with her mother, Natalie accuses Plyusha of leading a sheltered life, things happen at the execution site… and so on. They kept me going until the end.

Even so, I came up feeling pretty empty, despite having met two characters with good potential who ended up squandered because the larger questions in the novel – political repression, history, contemporary views of history and political repression, religion – felt a little like (to use a horrible, worn cliché) round pegs for square holes. Or vice versa. They can get crammed and jammed together, but the result isn’t comfortable or elegant; they need custom finish work to be a good fit. Which is unfortunate because I enjoyed Plyusha and Natalie’s company, their situations had lots of potential, and the awful history of the NKVD’s Polish operation deserves discussion, more than it gets here. I feel more regret than usual that a novel fell short for me in large part because it tried too hard to toggle between a primary narrative and an inserted text. Given reader comments on labirint.ru I have to suspect, too, that Orlov (with whom I don’t agree about everything, though I second all his final conclusions, including that the historical and political elements of the book don’t click) and I are more critical than many, if not most, readers who might be more content to skip, skim, and forgive.

Up next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik, which I’m continuing to enjoy, and the very interesting Big Book finalist biography of Venedikt Erofeev by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

2019’s Yasnaya Polyana Award Winners

The onslaught of award news continued this past week as the Yasnaya Polyana Award announced winners. Sergei Samsonov won the contemporary Russian prose category for his Держаться за Землю (Hold Onto (the?) Earth or something similar that captures the importance of mining?) a novel about coal miners and geopolitical conflict, war, in the Donbass region. The award’s news item includes a statement from jury member Vladislav Otroshenko that notes a growing tendency toward writing about contemporary life. This gladdens me after a spate of books about (twentieth-century) history, although – without having yet even attempted to read Samsonov’s book – I’d wondered about exactly what seems to concern reviewer Mikhail Vizel most about the novel. He writes (in my paraphrase) that the events in Donbass are still too hot, too agonizing, for an epic with a bird’s-eye view of events to be artistically effective. He does, though, seem to think many things work well in this fairly traditional novel, where point of view shifts between various characters who inspire reader sympathy.

I was very happy to see that Grigory Sluzhitel won the reader’s choice award for Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post), which I’d been so sure would win that category that I bet some catnip on it. Meanwhile, Hernán Rivera Letelier’s El arte de la resurrección (English title: The Art of Resurrection), in Darya Sinitsina’s translation Искусство воскрешения, won the foreign book award. (My quick searches don’t show that the book has been translated into English; here’s a list of translations from Goodreads. A quick check of Amazon doesn’t turn up any English translations of Letelier books and the only two titles WorldCat comes up with for English sure look to be Spanish. There is, however, a review of The Art of Resurrection here.) Finally, so I can end on an up note rather than yet another book that apparently hasn’t been translated: Yasnaya Polyana’s event award went to Igor Volgin for his TV show Игра в бисер (The Bead Game), in which Volgin and four guests discuss literature, some Russian, some non-Russian, mostly by authors who are no longer among the living. (Vodolazkin’s Laurus is an anomaly!) I saw lots of familiar names – writers, scholars, critics, professors – on the guest lists and realize I’ve been missing out on what appear to be interesting programs. I feel particularly silly since Volgin was at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year and I didn’t take note! The show has been on since 2011 so there’s lots to choose from.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual. Two authors I’ve translated are on the YP jury and I know both Grigory Sluzhitel and Mikhail Vizel. Here, by the way, is Vizel’s piece about the award for the Год литературы site.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise, two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik, which I’m continuing to enjoy, and Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, which kept me up at night reading.