Sunday, July 28, 2019

Verbinina’s Moscow Time

I think I’ve written before that I have a particular (perhaps even peculiar) attraction to detective novels because I enjoy reading about fears. Valeria Verbinina gives her Московское время (Moscow Time) a perfect setting for all sorts of fears: Moscow in 1939. Verbinina’s retro detective novel doesn’t offer the “изящество” and “вкус” (elegance and taste) that Akunin’s Fandorin series offers right on the cover, but Moscow Time made for good, albeit slightly didactic, entertainment during a busy time in the heat of summer. (“Busy” and “heat” pretty much sum up my whole summer!) Even if many of the novel’s details were long-forgotten a few days after finishing, the contours of the book – which feel most important anyway – settled in pretty solidly.

The basic plot is relatively simple: a student named Nina walks into in the middle of a police operation one night on her way home from the Bolshoy Theater, where she’s just seen Ivan Susanin. (!) Nina immediately develops a crush on one of the (disguised) team members, a respected and dedicated investigator fond of sleeping in his office. Nina lives in a communal apartment, an aspect of the story that reminds me a bit of Yulia Yakovleva’s retro detective novels: communal apartments offer fantastic opportunities for introducing characters with diverging histories, professions, and motives. And of course residents often clash. Although Verbinina sometimes goes on a bit too long when telling backstories – though I sincerely love that Nina’s father is a tuba player – she puts the neighbors to good use in her plot. A plot that includes a serial killer. A strangler.

The whodunnit aspect of Moscow Time feels less important than all those fears I mentioned. There’s discussion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and lots of background on World War 2, plus details on Nina’s father’s earlier life, which includes World War 1 and 1917. Appropriately, that chapter is called “Тревога,” “anxiety” or “alarm.” Verbinina’s narration, which sometimes reverts to the first-person, as if the narrator is a guide to times past, offers plenty of hindsight, not to mention a few footnotes, including one that alerts the reader that saccharine was used a lot in the Soviet 1920s. There’s also some history of early Soviet-era serial killers, including one that Mikhail Bulgakov wrote about in “The Komarov Case”. (Bulgakov also appears in some of Verbinina’s chapter epigraphs.) Though I occasionally thought the narration and footnotes got a little too pedagogical (saccharine, for example, is something I’ve run across many times), I enjoyed picking up other historical tidbits.

There’s plenty more here to observe, including Verbinina’s use of redacted curses (I’m sure people really did swear in Soviet times!); one character accusing another of using a newspaper photo of Stalin for, ah, wiping; differing opinions on Vertinsky; a character who is (once) called Lizok, and some marital advice. On a more plot-oriented level, there’s some good-cop-bad-cop material plus a downtown chase scene involving a bread truck. All in all, Moscow Time was easy, entertaining reading that just keeps rolling along, the sort of book I’d be quick to recommend to readers looking to build their Russian reading skills. There’s lots of dialogue and the story moves along at a decent clip. Even if it’s not dense with suspense and ends a touch too rapidly, what interested me most about Moscow Time in the first place was observing how a prolific contemporary Russian author envisions Soviet-era serial killings and communal life in a novel that blends history, crime, and coming of age.

And now off to the beach with another detective novel, Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, set in the Middle Ages.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.

Up Next: Alexander Pelevin’s Kalinova Yama, which was good but not the wonder of The Four, and Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, which has really sucked me in.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Big Book 2: Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina

I seem to be reading a lot of authors who create out-of-kilter worlds that demand extra attention: deciphering Alexander Pelevin’s The Four requires a reread and Alexei Salnikov’s Petrovs and Indirect left me feeling the need to repeat, too. And then there’s Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, which I read happily until, all of a sudden, the young heroine, Katya, met a kikimora in her kitchen in the middle of the book. Although the change felt abrupt – I’d been used to Katya’s dreary life with her parents, wretched classmates, and teacher who smokes in the classroom (whoa, shades of grad school!) and was expecting an entirely different sort of change – after reading some of Nekrasova’s short fiction, I realized she was taking it easy on her readers with the kikimora. I now feel ready for just about anything, though I’m still glad I read the book in two large chunks, before-kikimora and after-kikimora. Reading Salnikov’s Petrovs chapter-by-chapter worked best for me, too, to let the oddities and details settle. Sometimes that’s the best way to absorb them.

And so. Kalechina-Malechina is, as I’ve summarized in previous posts, a shortish novel about a schoolgirl who lives outside a large “Gulliverish” city. I jotted in my book that she’s a girl after my own heart: she owns a dumbphone, sleeps late, loves night, and is an independent latchkey kid. She’s also a lousy at needlecrafts and her teacher threatens to send her to a school for slow learners if she can’t crochet some mittens. I called the novel “edgy” earlier, too, because Nekrasova doesn’t hold back on details of daily horrors and offenses, some of which recall chernukha: beyond the inane mittens we find, among other things, a bullying boy (he even swears at school); there’s abuse (and disgusting latrines) at summer camp and with an adult who, theoretically, should be trusted; and, though I can’t find the spot, I seem to recall that a boy (the bully?) drops his pants at school. Oh and Katya breaks her prissy friend’s nice smartphone, causing a rift. After these problems, the kikimora’s appearance has an almost light(e)ning effect: there are some wonderfully comic scenes where the two of them take a train to visit a relative so Katya can play loan shark for the afternoon to collect on a debt to her father, passing off the kikimora as a visiting relative during the trip.

All sorts of other things happen in Kalechina-Malechina, which takes its title, by the way, from this poem by Alexei Remizov, though I’m less interested in the plot – and its resolutions – than the novel’s stylistics and motifs. Returning to the title, this master’s thesis (PDF here!) by Magdelena Mot notes childhood and rituals in the cycle Посолонь (Sunward or Sunwise) in which “Kalechina-Malechina” appears: Mot’s abstract notes “Posolon’ calls for the regaining of a lost cyclicity and looks back in time at the common folk’s way of life.” And “… in Posolon’ Russia is all about folklore, joyful games, tales and rituals.” This fits nicely with Katya’s experiences, where life is anything but simple but she creates her own rituals to lend normalcy where perversion – of rules, hierarchies, behaviors, and kindnesses – has taken over.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s a Platonovian (or Platonovesque?) feel to Nekrasova’s writing. There are neologisms: she constantly plays on the word “выросший,” an adjective used as a noun for “grown-up” by adding a “не-” for someone who’s not grown-up, meaning a kid, plus, as another example, Katya’s father “даладничал” (“wellfined”) in one spot after smiling. Even more important, there’s also what Dmitry Bykov calls a “платоновская тоска” (“Platonovian melancholy/anguish/yearning/pining/despair” – “тоска” is, after all, a flexible word) to what I’ll call Nekrasova’s worldview. As in Platonov, at least as I read him, there’s a sense of feeling crushed but there’s also a strange exuberance, partly, I think, because of his stylistic unusualness. That feeling, that sense, fits neatly with Nekrasova’s writing about twisted aspects of seemingly contemporary, gray (the color of poor Katya’s hair!) life outside a Gulliver-sized city.

Olesya Gonserovskaya’s illustrations 
add a lot to the book.
(Left to right: Katya and the kikimora.)

I admire those and other aspects of K-M but I think what strikes me most is a gratitude that is more social: I’ve used the word “edgy” to describe the novel and appreciate the way Nekrasova’s angle on Katya’s world, combined with folklore motifs (the kikimora), the references to Remizov, and even some humor, serve to update and enliven the chernukha genre by depicting crushingly (that word again!) awful circumstances – for a child, no less – alongside mystical and mythical elements. This occurs in Nekrasova’s short fiction, too: in “Несчастливая Москва” (“Unhappy Moscow,” where the title clearly echoes Platonov) strange daily changes in Moscow (like people suddenly speaking English instead of Russian) affect Nina, a cheerful, positive go-getter who refuses to leave the city, and in the beautifully composed “Лакшми” (“Lakshmi”) in which, hmm, a woman handles spousal abuse in a unique way. Nekrasova’s main characters’ – note that they’re all female – blend inner strength and outer, even supernatural, forces that combine to lend them abilities that empower. Although Kalechina-Malechina worked very nicely for me once I accepted the kikimora’s presence, I think the several works of short fiction that I’ve read thus far are even better because short-form fiction meshes so perfectly with Nekrasova’s direct, concise style and ability to describe social ills and various types of (that word again, too!) perversions with colorful, biting vignettes and details that feel both real and otherwordly. I’m looking forward to reading more.

This is the second 2019 Big Book Award finalist that I’ve read in its entirety. The first was Grigory Sluzhitel’s Savely’s Days (previous post), which also contains excellent illustrations.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received a copy of Kalechina-Malechina from the publisher after Elena Shubina recommended it to me last fall. Nekrasova sent me a care package of her stories, including a collection that won a Litsei award in 2018. Thank you to all involved!

Up Next: More fun with genres and fears – a perfect combo for summer – thanks to Valeria Verbinina’s retro detective novel Московское время (Moscow Time).

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Space Oddities: Alexander (“My Favorite Pelevin”) Pelevin’s The Four

Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four), a finalist for this year’s National Bestseller Award, is something of a wonder. Before I get into the why, I’ll say that I knew next to nothing about the book before reading it and am glad I picked it up with so few preconceived notions. I won’t include big plot spoilers in this post, but I will mention a few of the motifs that I picked up in my one reading. (I realized as I read through my post that I didn’t even get around to one of the big ones. Consolation: that means I won’t spoil it!) Those motifs only partially decoded the novel for me, but even so, I’m glad I didn’t know about them before reading. You have been warned!

So, what makes The Four a wonder? Pelevin writes three story lines from what I consider three distinct genres – futuristic science fiction, retro noirish detective story, and modern-day psychiatric drama – to compose a novel where one of the key glues (and clues) is Гость на коне (“Guest on a Horse”), a poem by Alexander Vvedensky. (Four horsemen of the apocalypse, coincidence or not?) The sea is another form of glue, and this sea is often very elemental, even a sort of primeval goo from ages ago, a living being unto itself. I will say no more.

The first chapter opens in 2154, on a space ship hurtling to the planet Proxima Centaur b, located in a solar system that is (of course!) far, far away from ours. Four astronauts have just come out of eighty-seven years of stasis and it’s time to prepare for landing and research on Proxima Centaur b. The spaceship’s operating system, Aurora, is essentially a super-advanced Siri or Alexa: she’s friendly, seems to know everything, and knows Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in many languages; she’ll recite some Gumilev poetry, too. Shortly after the ship’s commander, Lazarev, refuses Aurora’s generous offer to sing “Space Oddity” in English, Pelevin whisks the reader back to 1938, to Crimea, where a certain Vvedensky ((!) I wrote “such a marked name!” in the margin), a Leningrader, has arrived to investigate a murder; strange scenes and grisly situations, including murder victims with metal stars on them, will follow. I particularly liked an unusually worldly character named Kramer, who has lived overseas, shows a scholarly bent, and feeds both Vvedensky and many feral cats. When we’re zapped forward to 2017, a psychiatrist, Khromov, is working with a patient who claims to communicate with a woman from another planet. (Three guesses where it is…) Khromov has his own issues and would love to just spend some quiet time at New Year’s with his wife and daughter, who seem close to perfect.

Twin Peaks was apparently an inspiration for Pelevin and the Twin Peaks connection does fit with certain aspects of the novel: NatsBest jury reviewer Vasily Avchenko notes, for example, the things-aren’t-always-as-the-seem element. As a long-time fan of Twin Peaks who enjoyed The Four, speaking in the broadest terms, it’s safe to say both endeared themselves to me through their oddness, twisted hominess, smartness, and otherworldliness. They’re stylish and easy to take in but filled with layers of meaning and enigmas that take multiple viewings/readings to sort. Of course that’s fun. And of course I’m missing a zillion references, not just from Twin Peaks. There’s lots from 2001 (I’ve never seen it, though I grilled my husband about HAL) and even, apparently, Aelita, which I read in my pre-blog life (there was such a time!) but don’t remember well.

Thinking back to the atmosphere(s) in The Four got me pondering (yet again) (sub)genres like speculative fiction, slipstream fiction, and new weird, largely because they tend to bend. This brought back Dmitry Olshansky’s NatsBest review, which I’ll summarize as calling The Four interesting but unsuccessful; he reads it as a B-movie sort of thriller with some artsy moments thanks to the Vvedensky and Gumilev bits. I would argue (for starters) that Pelevin’s ability to lift his wonderfully pulpy-sounding material by working the poetry – plus references to classic science fiction books and films – into not one but three plotlines goes well beyond the demands of a b thriller. Even better, Pelevin does all that without making me feel manipulated. To the contrary: I found The Four pretty stimulating and am still flipping through it to pick up on humor, ruminate on genre questions, and track motif mentions and starts of idea threads that I missed because I was so caught up in the plots. And then Pelevin’s play with time – the stasis years are an existential time warp unto themselves, plus the three plots link up – reminded me of, among others, Vodolazkin, who also mentions a plethora of cats in Crimea. (Cats!) Finally, I have to agree with another NatsBest reviewer, Natasha Romanova, that The Four’s Crimean detective track recalls Lev Ovalov’s Major Pronin novels, which I enjoyed three of in my pre-blog life.

I’ll close by saying that a kind friend with a big suitcase brought me another Pelevin novel that I’ll read soon. My recent contemplation of how I read has shown me that I’m more oriented on authors’ worldviews than ever before – books and stories by Alexei Salnikov and Evgenia Nekrasova, which are also about weird places and hidden aspects of the universe(s), are exhibits A and B – so I’m planning to read that (and perhaps Pelevin’s debut novel, too) before returning to The Four. Beyond wanting to decipher more of the novel as a whole, I want very much to be in that spaceship again with Lazarev, so far from home and trying not to think about Earth. (Ah, floaty existential moments!) Perhaps that’s why he balks when Aurora goes haywire for a bit and recites “Guest on a Horse,” a poem whose last sentence, in Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation for New York Review Books, is “I forgot about existence,/ I again/ contemplated/ the distance.”

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Huge thanks to the very kind colleague who brought me a copy of Четверо. (He brought me another NatsBest finalist, too, Alexander Etoev’s Я буду всегда с тобой (I’ll Always Be With You), though I’ve set that one aside, at least for now, after seventy-five pages. It just couldn’t hold my attention after The Four.) Thank you to New York Review Books for sending me, several years ago, a copy of An Invitation for Me to Think, a selection of poems by Alexander Vvedensky translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich. Ostashevsky’s introduction has been useful since the Vvedensky is clearly a key to The Four. Vvedensky and his бессмыслица (Ostashevsky suggests meaningless, absurdity, and nonsense as translations), which I know so painfully little about, are sucking me in. 

Up Next: Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina and stories about more weird worlds.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Lizok’s Summer Reading Plan: 2019 Big Book Finalists

The Big Book Award named twelve finalists last week and I breathed a big old sigh of relief because this year’s short list looks so much better – infinitely better – to me than last year’s*. I’ve already read several of the books, all of which were very good in their own ways; a few others are already calling out to me. The list is an interesting combination of familiar and not-so-familiar authors, though there only two – Gonorovsky and Bakharevich – were completely unfamiliar to me before the Big Book Long List. Perhaps most interesting: unless I’ve really missed the point here about something, there’s only one work of nonfiction this year, a biography of Venedikt Erofeev, which pretty much had to make the finals.

  • Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Рай земной (Earthly Paradise? Heaven on Earth?) looks back at political repression during the Stalin era, apparently layering fantasy and history. (If, that is, the book’s description is to be believed!) I’m very much looking forward to this one after Aflatuni’s The Ant King.
  • Olgerd Bakharevich says his Собаки Европы (The Dogs of Europe), a 768-page book is about everything, with Belarus, Europe, the world, and Minsk being some of that “everything.” He translated the book himself, rewriting it in the process.
  • Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Брисбен (Brisbane) tells the story of a virtuoso guitar player who discovers he has an incurable medical condition.
  • Aleksandr Gonorovsky’s Собачий лес (Dog Forest, though I’m suspecting layers of meaning here…) apparently combines a lot of genres and addresses topics including historical trauma.
  • Linor Goralik’s 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.
  • The trio of Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky hit the list for the biography Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The Outsider). Oliver Ready’s review for The TLS notes this, which makes me look forward to the book very much: “In fact, this is not one biography but two, for between each chapter comes an interlude devoted to Moskva- Petushki.”
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Калечина-Малечина (Kalechina-Malechina) is vivid, imaginative, and edgy in its description of a schoolgirl who is bullied and often left to her own devices.
  • Alexei Salnikov’s Опосредованно (Indirectly perhaps? This is what a colleague and I think might fit…) is about a woman living in the Urals who writes poetry in a world that’s almost like ours, though poems have drug-like effects. I enjoyed Indirectly very much but reading it electronically wasn’t enough so I’m going to reread it as a printed book.
  • Roman Senchin’s Дождь в Париже (Rain in Paris) is about a Russian man who’s in Paris reflecting on his life in Russia.
  • Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post) is the first-cat narrative I so enjoyed last year.
  • Vyacheslav Stavetsky’s Жизнь А.Г. (The Life of A.G.) concerns a Spanish dictator.
  • Guzel Yakhina’s Дети мои (Children of the Volga) blends history and fairy tale motifs in a novel about a Volga German man and his daughter.
*With one exception: I’m sorry (yet again!) to see how few books written by women hit the short list. Since I don’t know what books were nominated, it’s impossible to say what the starting material was for the first two rounds of selection but, looking at the long list, I can say that I already read Anna Nemzer’s The Round (previous post) and thought it was pretty good, couldn’t quite get into Ksenia Buksha’s Opens In though it seemed well-written and solidly structured, and still have several other longlisters written by women either on the shelf to read or on order from a generous friend willing to travel with lots of book baggage. I am looking forward to reading those books and the other finalists! [Added on 6/11/2019.]

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’m a member of the Literary Academy, the large jury for the Big Book Award. I’ve translated works by three authors on the list, know a couple more, and have received copies of some of the books from various parties.

Up Next: Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, plus some of her shorter work. And then Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four, perhaps, though I’m still not sure), which I’m enjoying for its blend of three plotlines: futuristic space travel, a 1930s detective story set in Crimea, and a present-day description of a patient at a St. Petersburg psychiatric hospital who claims to have contact with someone from another planet. It’s lively and entertaining.