Sunday, January 11, 2015

Marina Stepnova’s Doktor Ogarev: First, Do No Harm?

Some books are most interesting to write about long after I’ve read them: my impressions seem to sort themselves out, leaving a clearer picture of what truly felt most important. That’s particularly helpful when books are as flowlingly easy to read but tremendously, disarmingly complicated to describe—and filled with detail—as Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок, which Stepnova’s literary agency is provisionally calling The Italian Lessons in English.

Even the novel’s title requires a bit of explanation: Bezbozhnyi pereulok refers to a Moscow street, the name of which implies, literally, Godless, not religious, antireligious, or even (if I synthesize a translation in the Oxford Russian Dictionary with definitions in the Ozhegov and Dyachenko dictionaries) outrageous in various ways that may be immoral. The street’s pre-Revolutionary name, Protopopovsky, was restored in 1992, according to Wikipedia. Simpler to translate since it’s just a surname, but hardly as interesting for a book title.

I’m not sure which title—the Russian original or the very different provisional English title—fits the book better but I’ll use the title as an entry to describing the novel’s plot. On a purely geographical level, something that’s important to the novel, I like the English title because the novel’s main character, Dr. Ivan Ogarev, is involved in two love triangles: the first between his wife Anya (also Antoshka) and his mistress Malya, the second between his native Russia, where he lives, and Italy, where he goes with Malya. The triangles themselves are remarkably similar because life with Antoshka, who’s the receptionist at the medical office where Ogarev works, is filled with Russian routine, but life with Malya, who lives off her wealthy father’s money, is filled with spontaneity and travel… to places including Italy. Malya might have studied in London but Ogarev, who’s a little older and grew up in the Soviet era, didn’t even know about passports for foreign travel. It is Malya, by the way, who lives on Bezbozhnyi pereulok.

Part of the fun of reading The Italian Lessons lay in observing how the novel differs from Stepnova’s previous book, The Women of Lazarus, (previous post), which will (here’s a shameless mention!) be out this fall, in my translation, from De Geus’s new World Editions imprint. I was glad to find Stepnova’s wonderful literary tics ticking away again: lots of quoting from and referring to classics, food preparations (walnuts are ground on the very first page) that never fail to make me hungry, and characters whose lives coincide with changes in Russian history. Ogarev comes of age during perestroika and the lives of the three main women in The Women of Lazarus reflect their times, too: the 1917 revolution and World War 2, the thaw era, and the socioeconomic difficulties of the 1990s. Stepnova also includes lots of one-word sentences, off-hand parenthetical comments, and even a budget from the nineties… in short, Stepnova is still the indescribable literary magpie I came to love more and more with each new draft of The Women of Lazarus. (And there were many drafts… the book is stylistically very complex…)

What’s different in The Italian Lessons is that Stepnova focuses on just one generation—Ogarev’s generation, with its Soviet-era childhood and post-Soviet adulthood—as the setting for a story that’s less about a doctor healing patients than about a doctor healing himself in a country that’s critically ill. Ogarev is a guy who’s angry with the world (he didn’t exactly have a happy childhood) and Stepnova writes early on that if he’d been born in the nineties, he probably would have been some sort of criminal. Instead, he’s a talented doctor who’s almost criminally unhappy. Here’s a brief paragraph about his Moscow life, from about two-thirds of the way through the book:

Три тысячи двести семь пациентов в базе данных. Простуженная жена. Пробки. Путин. Съёмная квартира. Системно чужой город. Системно чужая безрадостная страна.
Three thousand two hundred and seven patients in the database. Wife sick with cold. Traffic jams. Putin. Rented apartment. Consistently/systematically alien city. Consistently/systematically alien, joyless country.

That day is cold and dark, and Ogarev has fallen out of love with his native country (I purposely used “alien” to reflect Ogarev’s alienation), but it’s also a week after he met Malya, a patient, who brings him coffee. From Starbucks. True to the book’s provisional English title, though, The Italian Lessons ends in [spoiler alert!] Italy. Where Ogarev is described as a “свободный человек,” a “free person,” and reminds me of a modern-day Levin as he mows the lawn. A page of so later, there’s a run of words that includes July, Italy, sun, and, yes, even Tolstoy. And then Stepnova finishes the book a bit later with the word “человек,” meaning “person” or, perhaps better yet, “human being.” I won’t spoil anything else with more details—this book, which I liked very much (and would, of course, love to translate), is desperately difficult to write about without giving everything away—though I will say that Ogarev pays dearly for that freedom to become a human being.

Disclaimers. The usual. As mentioned, I translated Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus. And I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Stepnova in Moscow last September. I’ve also worked on projects with Stepnova’s agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova.

Up Next. Another difficult-to-describe book: Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov. And then Gleb Shulpyakov’s Museum Named After Dante, which I found mysteriously enjoyable. I’m still trudging along through Alexei Nikitin’s Victory Park, which sometimes seems to have too many backstories for its own good… though there’s something about the humor, which seems to be turning darker, that keeps me going. And the NOSE award at the end of the month, too…

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year! & 2014 Highlights. The Footnotes Have It!

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I wish everyone an extraordinarily happy, healthy 2015 with an abundance of good, (whatever that may mean to you), fun, enjoyable books. This year, like last, turned out to be all about quality over quantity, with, alas, a plethora of abandoned books… fortunately, the good books more than made up for the books I didn’t finish. Here are some highlights.

Favorite book by an author I’d already read. I still haven’t posted about Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I finished several months ago. But a post is on the way. Seriously. In brief, though, Solovyov is a Petersburg historian who goes to Crimea for a conference about Larionov, a White Army general. Much academic hilarity ensues. Some of it in footnotes. Of course there are many, many more elements--like timelessness and some malfeasance involving a document--to this fun novel, a big reason why it’s so difficult to write about…

Favorite book by an author I’d never read. This one has to be Evgeny Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Translation, (previous post), which I loved for Chizhov’s grace in mixing genres, making an invented country work for this skeptical reader, and effectively describing all sorts of heat. I was glad to see that Translation won the Venets award last week from the Moscow Union of Writers.

Favorite book read in English. I admit that, as per the usual, I didn’t read as many Russia(n)-related books in English during 2014 as I might have... but that doesn’t mean Soviets, by Danzig Baldaev and Sergei Vasiliev, (previous post), isn’t worthy of another mention. The combination of detailed caricatures, black and white photos, and pointed captions is well worth reading and studying. This must be my year of loving footnotes: Soviets, translated by Polly Gannon and Ast A. Moore, contains lots of helpful explanatory notes. The publisher, Fuel, continues to produce beautiful books: I’ve been saving their Soviet Space Dogs, another attractive book, as a treat. The New Year holiday may be just the right time…

Favorite travel. Everything was good this year—BookExpo America in New York, the American Literary Translators Association conference in Milwaukee, and the Congress of Literary Translators in Moscow—but I have to vote for the Congress. Not much beats a trip to Moscow that includes a visit to Andrei Platonov’s grave, speaking about translating old language in contemporary novels, and having an opportunity to see so many of “my” writers, not to mention translator colleagues from all over. It was especially fun and helpful to meet the afore-mentioned Evgeny Vodolazkin and talk about his Laurus, which I’m busily working on now…

What’s coming up in 2015? Top blogging priority is to get caught up on posts. And I’m still trying to figure out ways to capture notes and comments about some of the books I abandon. Often hundreds of pages in, like, let’s say, Zakhar Prilepin’s The Cloister, a book that offers a new aesthetic for prison camp novels but just wasn’t going anywhere for me, or Vladimir Sorokin’s Tellurium, which seemed to rehash too many Sorokin books I’d already read. I suppose one way to capture this information is to write by-the-by notes, or add a “Biggest Disappointment of the Year” paragraph to my year-end posts. I could have written that paragraph this year about Prilepin’s book, which won the Big Book Prize. I could say that Konstantin Milchin sums up my problems with The Cloister beautifully here, noting, among other things, (and I’ll paraphrase) that the novel, which is a bit lacking on the plot side, could have been 300 pages or 1,000 pages long, all to, roughly the same effect. (For the record, I read around 270 pages so didn’t come up very short on that 300 figure...) I was very happy that Milchin mentions Prilepin’s language, which hardly seems to vary among his 1920s characters, who speak in suspiciously (my word!) modern terms. I’d wondered about this but, as a non-native reader of Russian, thought maybe I was too demanding, particularly given my work on Laurus, where it’s an understatement to say the dialogue sure does vary.

A reading priority for 2015: I’m hoping to keep reminding myself to look for more books published by smaller publishers and literary journals…

Thank You! Finally, another big thank you to everyone who visits the blog, whether regularly or occasionally. Happy New Year to everyone! And happy reading!

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, Marina Stepnova’s The Italian Lessons (Безобжный переулок), and Alexey Nikitin’s Victory Park, which is off to a great start… Also, a list of translations coming out in 2015. I’m taking names and titles, so send them on in now!

Disclaimers. The usual.


Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

More Miscellany: Booker Goes to Sharov… AATSEEL Awards… Russian Literature Week… Two Translations...

1. The Russian Booker Prize was awarded yesterday to Vladimir Sharov for Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). Sharov won third prize from the Big Book Award jury last week, too, so he’s had a busy award season. In other Booker news, Учительская газета reported, in a newsy article, that Natalya Gromova’s Ключ. Последняя Москва (The Key. The Last/Final Moscow) won the Booker’s grant award, which covers the book’s translation into English. 

Return to Egypt has not (yet) been translated into English, Sharov’s До и во время does exist in English, in the form of Oliver Ready’s translation, Before & During. I’m not even sure where or how to begin describing Before & During: this complex novel’s frame story involves a man checking himself into a psychiatric hospital, where he begins compiling stories for a Memorial Book. The novel’s primary character, though, turns out to be Madame de Staël, who seems to give birth to just about everyone, including herself. I’ve seen the word “phantasmagoria” used to describe the book more than once, and it’s more than appropriate for Sharov’s quirky combination of religion, Russian history, and culture… Stalin, Lenin, Scriabin, and Tolstoy are among the real-life figures who put in appearances, making for alternative history at its most peculiar. Before & During has a peculiar charm, too: I don’t usually have much patience for monologues but something about the book’s wackiness and, I’m sure, Oliver’s lucid translation, mesmerized me and I finished, even though I’m not exactly sure what I read. This is (yet another!) book it would be fun to research while rereading. For detailed descriptions of Before & During, see Anna Aslanyan’s review for The Independent and Russian Dinosaur’s detailed account. Caryl Emerson’s review in the April 11, 2014, issue of The Times Literary Supplement (which I happened to buy) contains a summary of the scandal at the journal Novyi mir when Before & During was first published in the nineties.


2. The American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) announced its annual book awards last week. Most exciting (for me anyway!) was that Sibelan Forrester won the scholarly translation award for The Russian Folktale, by Vladimir Propp, published by Wayne State University Press. I loved reading Propp years ago in grad school so this was a great reminder that I’ve been meaning to buy Sibelan’s book of Propp. The best literary translation award went to Anthony Anemone and Peter Scotto for I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary: The Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms, published by Academic Studies Press. Sophia Lubensky’s revised Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms (Yale University Press) won the language pedagogy award—I use an older edition of this book and find it ridiculously helpful in my translation work. Part of the fun of Lubensky’s dictionaries is that they include quotations from literature, with English translations… the new edition apparently includes contemporary authors like Akunin, Pelevin, Ulitskaya, and Sorokin. Finally, Katia Dianina won the award for literary and cultural studies for When Art Makes News: Writing Culture and Identity in Imperial Russia, published by Northern Illinois University Press.

3. I spent about 1.5 days in New York last week for Read Russia’s first annual Russian Literature Week festivities, enjoying two panel discussions: one panel looked at nineteenth-century classics, with translator Marian Schwartz, New York Review Books editor Edwin Frank, and Esther Allen, a translator from the Spanish and associate professor at Baruch College; the other panel focused on differences between translating classics and contemporary literature, with Marian Schwartz, Russian and Polish translator and New Vessel publisher Ross Ufberg, and translator and Columbia University professor Ron Meyer. I kept terrible notes but, in the midst of hearing about books like Marian’s translation of Anna Karenina, The Captain’s Daughter from Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Ross’s work on Vladimir Vysotsky’s stories, my memory zeroes in on two topics that I always find especially relevant and interesting: making sure the beginning of a book, particularly the very first page, has, as Marian put it, “zing,” and the special challenges of working on what will be an author’s debut in English. I also jotted down that someone said the word “pal” dates back to Shakespeare… this was interesting to learn since I’m using the phrase “be a pal” for a contemporary-sounding utterance in my translation of Vodolazkin’s Laurus, a book set in the Middle Ages that includes a spectrum of language ranging from archaicisms to modern slang. Flexibility is fun!

Speaking of fun: a highlight of Russian Literature Week was seeing translator friends. And it was particularly fun to see Katherine Dovlatov after reading Pushkin Hills, her translation of Sergei Dovlatov’s Заповедник. I read the first half of Pushkin Hills on a non-fun JetBlue flight last summer. But if ever there was a perfect book for a delayed flight on a stifling plane, this is it. Pushkin Hills tells, in first-person narrative, the story of one Boris Alikhanov, who has marital troubles as well as a job as a tour guide at the Pushkin Hills Preserve. Although I will always prefer the first half of the book—for its focus on the wonderful absurdity of working at a place dedicated to Pushkin (Our Everything!)—I came to appreciate the second half more. The novel’s second act includes a visit from Alikhanov’s wife and a visit to a KGB officer. Dovlatov’s humor felt absolutely perfect on that hot, tardy plane, thanks to, of course, a very funny original plus, of course, Katya Dovlatov’s translation, which renders her father’s short sentences into funny, colloquial English that reads beautifully. (Let me just say: that is not easy.) I think Katya succeeded so well because, as she notes in this Paris Review interview, she read the Russian out loud and then tried things out in English, “to keep the same musicality, the same tone.” She made lots of bang-up word choices, like scrud and booze-up, that capture the feel of her father’s novel and keep the text lively. And keep me laughing. No easy feat on a late airplane, particularly for a book I first read and enjoyed in Russian. Pushkin Hills was published in the U.S. by Counterpoint Press and in the U.K. by Alma Classics. Also of interest: Marisa Robertson-Textor’s “All Dovlatov’s Children: Recent Soviet Émigré Literature.”

Up Next: Back to the books, starting with Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок (Italian Lessons) or Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov. There are also lots more English-language translations and originals on the shelves, just waiting. I’m not sure, though, about Prilepin’s The Cloister… it might have won the Big Book last week, but after nearly 300 pages, The Cloister feels a little too big, a little too wordy, and a little too stuffed with, well, stuff that could have/should have been pared down a bit. Or a lot. But we’ll see.

Disclaimers: The usual, for knowing so many people in this post. Thank you to Dedalus Books for the copy of Before & During and Counterpoint Press for Pushkin Hills. Read Russia brought me to New York for Russian Literature Week.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Free(ing) Will in the Russian Far East: Remizov’s Ashes and Dust

In discussing Viktor Remizov’s Воля вольная—a novel that’s known by a completely different title, Ashes and Dust, in English—it’s probably best to start with the book’s tricky Russian title. The words, which transliterate as Volya vol’naya, refer, essentially, to the setting free of someone’s will to do something. The Russian title sums up the novel perfectly: Remizov writes about people and their will for freedom in the Russian Far East. In telling their stories, Remizov looks at problems that arise in an engrained system where poachers, everyday people, pay off officials for the dubious right to do illegal things.

Remizov writes about hunters, fishermen, cops, and Omonovtsy, officers in the Russian special forces, though I came away with an even better picture of the taiga’s snow, trees, and animals than its people. That’s not to say Remizov does a bad job describing his people—he handles a pretty large cast surprisingly well—it’s to say he does a beautiful job describing nature and the ways people inhabit it. It’s very difficult to believe Ashes and Dust is a debut novel; I’m glad the Big Book and Russia Booker award juries both named it a finalist. A bit more on that below.

Remizov’s novel is, of course, far, far more elegant than my description and part of my admiration for the book lies in the fact that Remizov has resurrected a genre that makes the book feel rather retro: the social novel. Remizov glides between intersecting subplots and creates a cast of characters that makes Ashes and Dust remind me, structurally, at any rate, more of Richard Price’s Clockers than of, say, Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs, a book set far closer to the Russian Far East than Price’s New Jersey. Though Ashes and Dust, like The Yeltyshevs, is a work of realism that looks at difficult living situations, both physical (lack of indoor facilities) and psychological (lack of individual freedoms), Remizov casts a broader net (pun intended: there is fishing in the book) than Senchin by concentrating on a universal social problem—freedom, on many levels—and offering individuals from several parts of society rather than detailing the facts of the fate of one person or one family, as Senchin’s novel (and most naturalistic chernukha literature) does so successfully.

I had never thought much about the Russian sable...
There’s something almost relaxing about reading Ashes and Dust, despite some difficult vocabulary and the tensions of a community torn apart by bribery, hunters like Genka Milyutin following his forefathers’ instincts out in the taiga, personal issues for a not-so-bad cop and his girlfriend, or wealthy Muscovite Ilya’s one-on-one with a bear. I won’t say who wins. And then there are the special forces, who come in to restore order when emotions start to boil in the community because of the issue of paying tribute. Remizov includes lots of other details that give the book texture, like холодец (that jellied meat some of us dread so much), good cop/bad cop, class differences, the guitarist Balaban, vodka, playing Mozart in the wilderness, the obligatory Rambo reference, a feeling of love among friends, and lots of discussion of what’s wrong with Russia.

Almost nothing in Ashes and Dust is especially innovative but Remizov puts all his pieces together in a way that makes them feel oddly, even paradoxically, fresh. I’d love to say the freshness (or illusion of freshness?) comes from the distant setting and witnessing how characters handle the wilderness, something Remizov obviously knows well—I was probably predisposed to enjoy Ashes and Dust for the simple reason that I love snow and cold weather—but, again, I think it’s the social novel genre’s jumpiness that keeps the novel on pace despite all sorts of elements that can really slow down a book and put me on the brink of boredom: nature descriptions and discussion of the afore-mentioned Big Questions About Freedoms. Instead of boredom, I found myself slowing down toward the end of the book because I didn’t want it to end.

As for the awards, well, it makes me happy that the Big Book and Booker juries—and the thick journal Novyi mir, which published the novel before it was reprinted in book form, first by Grand Express in Khabarovsk, this fall by Elena Shubina’s imprint at AST—recognized Ashes and Dust. To be honest, I think I’m so used to postmodern novels these days that Ashes and Dust was a bit of a shock to the system. It’s hard to find good social novels (at least in my world) and, again, the word “retro” seems to apply: the book feels wonderfully and welcomingly old-fashioned despite lots of markers from contemporary life, like references to the Chechen War and the Moscow business world. In the end, as I type, I remember a thought that came when I began reading Ashes and Dust: Remizov is a very good storyteller, a quality that feels a little under-rated these days. Storytelling is, for me, the most important aspect of a good book, whether the writer tells a story using old-school or postmodern methods. Whatever they might be.

Disclaimers: The usual. Publisher Elena Shubina introduced me to Viktor Remizov at the Moscow International Book Fair; I was given a copy of his novel. For these and numerous other reasons, if I hadn’t liked this book, I probably would have feigned losing it or said our cat Ireland shredded it, something that, alas, really, truly could happen. Ireland especially loves the binding of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s Endarkment, a bilingual collection of poetry edited by Eugene Ostashevsky that Wesleyan University Press sent to me ages ago... and from which I’ve read and enjoyed bits and pieces... this seems to be the way I read poetry collections.

Up Next: Some other book? Perhaps Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок (Italian Lessons)? Or Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov? Or maybe even a trip report about the 1.5 days I’m about to spend in New York, thanks to Read Russia’s first-annual Russian Literature Week, a celebration of Russian literature and translation? I’m sure I’ll see some of you at events on Monday and Tuesday!

Image from Sewell Newhouse’s 1867 The Trapper’s Guide, via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The 2014 Big Book Award Winners

Just a very quick post with this year’s Big Book Award winners. There weren’t any real surprises here. I would have loved to have seen Evgeny Chizhov win something—anything!—for his Translation from a Literal Translation, (previous post), which I liked so much but, well…


The jury awards went to:
  • The top prize was awarded to Zakhar Prilepin’s Обитель (The Cloister). A novel about the Solovetsky Islands in the 1920s. The Cloister already won the Book of the Year award and is also a finalist for the Russian Booker. I’ve been reading The Cloister for a while and it will take me another while to finish: it’s very long and rather detailed.
  • Vladimir Sorokin took second place for Теллурия (Tellurium). On my NatsBest long list post, I wrote: A polyphonic novel in 50 highly varying chapters. I read about 150 pages before setting Tellurium aside: Sorokin’s use of a futuristic medieval setting, tiny and huge people, kinky stuff, sociopolitical observations, and a novel (ha!) psychotropic agent all felt way too familiar after Day of the Oprichnik, The Blizzard, and The Sugar Kremlin. Shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller.
  • Vladimir Sharov won third place for Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). In which one Kolya Gogol (a distant relative of familiar old Nikolai Gogol) finishes writing Dead Souls. An epistolary novel. Shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller and Russian Booker.

Reader awards went to:

Up Next: Books, likely starting with Viktor Remizov’s Ashes and Dust, a very worthy Big Book finalist about poachers and corruption in the taiga.

Disclaimers: The usual.