Saturday, April 22, 2023

Potpourri 1: Andrew D. Kaufman on Dostoevsky & Mariengof on Cynics

Now that tax season and a multitude of other annoyances are out of the way, it’s time to get to that book backlog I mentioned in my last post. I’m not quite sure how to start clearing it away, though I suspect words like “messily” and/or “inelegantly” might be appropriate, particularly since I finished these two books many months ago. I think I’ve written before, though, that I enjoy writing about books long after reading them because it’s always interesting to find out  to see what stays with me. And so…

Andrew D. Kaufman’s The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoevsky, a book where the subtitle is so descriptive that this post almost feels superfluous, was part of my evening reading last autumn. Odd though it may sound, Kaufman’s writing about Dostoevsky’s gambling probably made the strongest, most harrowing, impression on me. After The Gambler Wife, fictional accounts of gambling (most notably in Balzac’s Lost Illusions) that might otherwise have seemed over-the-top felt utterly believable. I even wrote “Awful!!” at the start of a section that begins a month after the newlywed Dostoevskys arrive in Baden-Baden: Fyodor Mikhailovich (FMD) gambles (Kaufman mentions his “destructive mania”), and Anna Grigoryevna (AGD) hikes as an escape, since she’s also faced with, in her (translated) words, “grizzling heat, squalling children all around us, the smithy’s unbrearable hammering.”

Though I certainly wouldn’t say I think Kaufman’s book is mistitled, of course it’s as much about FMD as AGD, offering a historical, literary, and psychological introduction to FMD’s life and work, and showing AGD’s very crucial role in supporting FMD’s life and work. AGD eventually even published his books. The once-upon-a-time beginning to their marriage came when FMD was seeking a stenographer. AGD’s work began, appropriately, with The Gambler, which is, by the way, one of my favorite Dostoevsky novel(la)s. FMD’s ongoing relevance and reputation are topics of discussion as well, with Kaufman mentioning sensitive subjects, including that “Dostoevsky was deeply influenced by Slavophile ideas.” In a later chapter Kaufman notes “contradictions of Dostoevsky’s art and thought,” including xenophobia as well as, to use Gary Saul Morson’s term, “’morally reprehensible’ anti-Semitic motifs” in FMD’s work.

Kaufman’s primary focus, however, is AGD’s many roles as FMD’s partner, and he provides lots of telling primary-source information. AGD, for example, told her sister that FMD always seemed to be “sucking me into himself,” adding that he required a wife willing to “devote herself entirely, entirely to him.” (I’ll now never stop thinking of FMD as an energy vampire…) Later in the book, Kaufman writes that “…there were others [writers] who considered Anna an enabler, a woman who failed to set boundaries for her husband and gave up her own identity in service of his needs.” Given what I read, the concept feels completely correct here even if the word “enabler” feels like presentism to me. (Thank you to Languagehat for telling me the word “presentism” exists!) Nits of that sort certainly didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of The Gambler Wife, which is a compact and very readable work of narrative nonfiction, ideal for someone like me, who is emphatically not a Dostoevsky specialist but wants to read a basic account of his life, books, and marriage. The words Kaufman uses for his title, by the way, were uttered by FMD after what Kaufman calls AGD’s “flirtation with roulette” in Baden-Baden.

On a completely different note, Anatoly Mariengof’s Циники (Cynics) is one the most stylistically and thematically interesting books I’ve read in the last couple years. It’s also not an easy book to write about or even describe. Set in 1918-1924 Moscow, during the Civil War and the New Economic Policy, it’s very much a book of its time, with references to hunger, cannibalism, war, sleazy NEPmen, hunger again, war again, and cocaine use. Thinking more generally, it’s also both a novel of a fractured country and culture, and a novel about romantic entanglements with geometry larger than triangles. It’s a book about very physiological things, too: I had not been expecting early enema references (in one case, connected with love) that felt both very mundane in terms of content but, well, rather unusual for literature.

Languagehat and I corresponded about Cynics, too, so I sought out his blog post, which sums up my favorite aspect of the novel beautifully:

The genius of the book is that all this is laid out not in sweeping Tolstoyan exposition or anguished Dostoevskian self-revelation but in short bursts of dialogue or event, interspersed with even briefer accounts of what’s going on in the country at large, usually snippets from newspapers about battles, decrees, or starvation.

One of my favorite examples of this – I began thinking of those snippets as “the crawl” – comes in 1922, where section 33 (the crawl) mentions the arrest of two cannibalistic women and their victims, and then section 34 (the main story) returns to our characters in a luxe setting with music, tuxedoes, blini (food!)… Mariengof’s juxtapositions are wonderfully evocative and jarring, perfect for the time.

Cynics is one of those wondrous books (most of which, come to think of it, seem to be “about everything”) that I seem to soak up rather simply reading, making my reading more emotional than analytical. I’ll end on that note, with a link to Languagheat’s post about Cynics, which includes a plot summary far better than I could have come up with.

Disclaimers & Disclosures: The usual. I received a copy of The Gambler Wife from Riverhead Books, thank you very much!

Up Next: More backlog.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Shalamov and Shklovsky

I wrote my last alphabet post (it’s here!) a little over two years ago, covering the letter Ч (Ch), which was productive but not rich with writers I considered real, true favorites. Today I present to you the letter Ш (Sh), which is highly productive in terms of the sheer number of writers whose surnames begin in Sh… though there aren’t many I yet consider serious favorites.

I’ll start with Varlam Shalamov since he’s probably the Sh writer I (hm, what word to choose?) revere the most, thanks to the beautiful and spare prose of his Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales), which document experiences in Soviet-era prison camp. Some years ago I took some good advice and read one Shalamov story each evening. I read him that way for several weeks; dozens of short stories in my nine-hundred-page book await me. Here’s a previous post (about cold and snow) where I mentioned that reading. I highly recommend Shalamov to all readers.

Things start to get much foggier after Shalamov so I’ll start with Viktor Shklovsky, whom I read in grad school, but have (unjustly) pretty much ignored for decades. I think I (probably?) read him first for literary theory – most likely “Искусство как приём” (here it is in English! “Art as Technique”) – and, since I enjoy literary theory, I’ve pecked away at his theoretical writings over the years. I even have a nice edition of Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, translated by Shushan Avagyan for Dalkey Archive Press, who gave me a copy of the book at BookExpo America. I should read it in full one of these days/years. I read Shklovsky’s Сентиментальное путешествие (Sentimental Journey) in full decades ago, though I’d be lying if I said I remember much beyond a quick summary: it contains his recollections about the Russian Revolution and Civil War. I’ve recently had thoughts of rereading it. I have much more work to do on Shklovsky! Particularly since I have yet to read Зоо, или Письма не о любви (Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, which Jennifer Wilson discusses here, in The New York Times), an embarrassing gap in my reading since I vowed to read it after finishing Alisa Ganieva’s dishy (as I put it) page-turner of a biography of Lily Brik… I wrote of the Shklovsky connection here. I’ll end by adding that I nearly forgot to mention that Shklovsky coined the term остранение,” a word usually translated as “defamiliarization.” I love the word and what it describes.

And now to start on my stack of contemporary Sh writers’ books… Mikhail Shishkin has impressed me most in recent years with essays, both about Russia’s politics and invasion of Ukraine, and about writers. His lengthy piece called Бегун и корабль (The Runner and the Ship), about Vladimir Sharov, is particularly good – written about a beloved friend and his books – but I also loved reading his essay about Robert Walser, who is somehow terra incognita for me. As yet. Sharov is, of course, a Sh writer as well… and, as I’ve mentioned many times, he’s difficult for me to read, in large part because, sadly, I’m so biblically illiterate. (Foisting Sunday school on me was utterly counterproductive because I don’t like singing or memorizing. Reading the Bible itself during sermons on weeks when there was no Sunday school, however, was fun because I could read freely.) I’m still committed to putting lots more time into Sharov because I so enjoyed knowing him and still, despite not having known him very well, mourn his death because (as I’ve also written many times, including here) he was so otherworldly. Odd though it sounds, I still feel as if he simply couldn’t die, even physically. My strategy is still to restart my Sharov reading with his Будьте как дети (Be As Children), which I read and enjoyed nearly half of before I had to sample his other books to prepare for moderating an event… This article – “How Sharov’s Novels Are Made: The Rehearsals and Before & During – written by my friend and colleague Oliver Ready, who has translated several of Sharov’s novels, looks like it will provide some of the hints (and pushing) that I need. Perhaps it will help others, too. Before & During, by the way, is the only Sharov novel I’ve finished as yet. I wrote about it here after Sharov won the Russian Booker in 2014 for Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). I read the novel in Oliver’s translation, which Dedalus Books kindly sent to me; Dedalus has also sent copies of Oliver’s translations of Be As Children and The Rehearsals.

Vasily Shukshin, one of the most prominent (and, best, to my taste) “Village Prose” writers, is also in the Sh pile. I read his long and short stories every now and then and always seem to enjoy them, even when they’re sad as hell, like his Калина красная (The Red Snowball Tree), a novella that Shukshin didn’t just write. He also directed a film adaptation… and starred as the main character, a thief who’s been released from jail. On another note, yes, there are also a few women writers with Sh surnames. One of them, Ekaterina Sherga, wrote Подземный корабль (The Underground Ship), which I praised highly in 2013 (previous post). I believe Ship is Sherga’s only novel. There’s also Marietta Shaginyan, whose Месс-Менд (Mess-Mend) I read in 2005, finding it especially interesting as a 1920s period piece but a bit messy as a detective novel with nasty capitalists.

So! I still have plenty of reading ahead from letter-Ш writers like Shklovsky, Sharov, Shukshin, and Shalamov. I’d love to hope for more Sherga, too… I also have some unread Sh authors on the shelves: Ivan Shmelev, whose Солнце мертвых (The Sun of the Dead) Languagehat read last year (and called “grimly powerful”). It’s set in Crimea during wartime, in 1921. There’s also Roman Shmarakov’s Алкиной (Alcinous), which was a 2021 NOSE finalist – why not try a Russian novel set in the Roman Empire during the fourth century? And then there’s Vyacheslav Shishkov’s Угрюм-река, which Victor Terras, in A History of Russian Literature, calls Grim River, writing that it’s “about the colonization of Siberia.” The index of Terras’s book lists other Sh writers, including (of course) Mikhail Sholokhov, who didn’t endear himself to me much with Quiet Flows the Don decades ago… I’ll stop there and watch for thoughts on other letter-Ш writers!

Up Next: I have lots of catching up! Some of you have written to me in recent months, asking when/if I’ll ever post regularly again. I think (hope?) this is my start. I’m very grateful for readers’ kind notes, gentle questions, and tact. I’m especially grateful to one of you for writing to me last week, asking just the right questions at just the right time. Edit, March 13: After receiving a note from a worried friend, I want to add that I am fine. Blogging takes a fair bit of time; more than anything, I needed to spend more time on other things (particularly reading since I’ve had a lot of “required reading” of late) in recent months.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual for knowing some of the contemporary writers (and their translators and publishers!) whom I’ve mentioned above. Thank you again to Dedalus for sending Oliver’s meticulous translations of Sharov’s novels, which I like reading along with the Russian originals.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Closing Out 2022 With a New Translation List

I’m going to end this year on the blog the way I ended 2020 and 2021: with a list of the past year’s new translations. Rather than focus on why I’ve been reading a lot but, well, underachieving on the blogging side, I thought it best to look at something positive. It’s particularly heartening that, despite all sorts of difficulties, this year’s list of new translations is longer than last year’s list. How did we get to 48 47 46 47 48.5 over last year’s 39?

I guess my easy answer is classics: Chekhov and Mandelstam each have three titles on the list, and Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, and Sorokin (yes, Sorokin, a living classic) each have two. I’m disappointed yet again to see so few books by women on the list: there are only six written entirely by women and three written partially by women. All that said, even if – as always – I would have loved to have seen more women and more contemporary authors on the list, I’m very happily surprised to see that this many translations come out this year. I’ve heard so many stories about books with delayed publication dates as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine that I thought this year’s list would shrink far more. Another factor, one that may have worked both ways and may continue to work both ways: some books were already late because of production delays. It will be interesting to see what happens next year, when the effect of reduced Russian grants may hit harder. Then again, I already have fifteen books on the 2023 list, a pretty good start.

As for disclaimers, caveats, and other details, I’m sure I missed some books, perhaps even a lot of books. As in years past, I’ve included books of all genres and ages. Please add a comment or e-mail me with changes/errors or additions; my address is on the sidebar. NB: Though I generally list only new translations (including retranslations), I do occasionally allow a few reprints and reissues. I’ll place a link to this post on the sidebar of the blog for easy reference to the list. As I mentioned, I’m already taking names and titles for 2023, so please start sending them in. Finally, don’t forget the Self-Published Translation post, here: If you have a book to include, please add it in a comment on that page and I’ll be happy to approve it.

I haven’t felt especially festive this holiday season so no fireworks this year. May 2023 bring you health and lots of good books. May 2023 bring peace to Ukraine. And now… off to (among other things) finish my end-of-year cleaning, cook some food, eat some ice cream, and greet 2023 reading Shipnigov’s Стрим (Stream).

Here’s the 2022 list.

Aylisli, Akram: Stone Dreams: A Novel-Requiem, translated by Katherine E. Young, with a foreword by Thomas de Waal; Academic Studies Press, August 2022. This edition reissues a novella that also appears in Farewell, Aylis, published by ASP in 2018. Katherine Young’s Website has more information here about Aylisli. This reissue feels particularly timely and important given that Katherine received the 2022 Granum Foundation Translation Prize for translating Aylisli.

Babel, Isaac: Of Sunshine and Bedbugs: Essential Stories, translated by Boris Dralyuk; Pushkin Press.

Bacharevič, Alhierd: Alindarka’s Children, translated by Petra Reid and Jim Dingley; New Directions, June 2022. The New Directions listing says this: “Winner of the English Pen Award, the novel has been brilliantly rendered into English (from the Russian) and Scots (from the Belarusian): both Belarusian and Scots are on the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages.” I’m not sure if Russian is a bridge language here or if Bacharevič wrote the novel in both Russian and Belarusian (he self-translated another of his novels… and when that’s the case I wouldn’t consider Russian a bridge language) but since I always allow a few exceptions, I’d include it either way because of my interest in Belarus!

Barskova, Polina: Living Pictures, translated by Catherine Ciepiela; NYRB, September 2022. Living Pictures is on the shelf; it looks very good.

Belorusets, Yevgenia: Lucky Breaks, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky; New Directions, 2022. I first learned of Lucky Breaks from this Indextrious Reader blog post.

Chekhov, Anton: A Taste of Chekhov, translated by Lydia Stone, Paul Richardson, and Constance Garnett; Russian Life/StoryWorkz.

Chekhov, Anton: Steppe, translated by Constance Garnett and Paul Richardson; Russian Life/StoryWorkz. Bilingual edition.

Chekhov, Anton: Small Fry and Other Stories, translated by Stephen Pimenoff; Alma Classics. Alma calls this book “[a] Unique collection of Chekhov’s stories, some of them never translated before into English.”

Dostoevsky, Fyodor: Crime and Punishment, translated by Roger Cockrell; Alma Classics.

Drabkin, Artem: Voices of Russian Snipers, translated by David Foreman, edited by Artem Drabkin and Andrey Ulanov, with foreword by John Walter; Greenhill Books.

Drobyazhko, Sergey: On the Eastern Front at Seventeen: On the Eastern Front at Seventeen, translated by David Foreman, introduced by David M. Glantz; Greenhill Books.

Efron, Ariadna: No Love Without Poetry: The Memoirs of Marina Tsvetaeva’s Daughter, translated by Diane Nemec Ignashev; Northwestern University Press.

Felsen, Yuri: Deceit, translated by Bryan Karetnyk; Prototype Publishing, 2022. U.S. edition from Astra House on the way in February 2023.

Furman, Dmitrii: Imitation Democracy, translated by Ian Dreiblatt; Verso, November 2022. With foreword by Keith Gessen and afterword by Tony Wood.

Gandelsman, Vladimir: A Man Only Needs a Room, translated by Anna Halberstadt, Olga Livshin, and Andrew Janco; New Meridian Arts.

Ganieva, Alisa: Offended Sensibilities, translated by Carol Apollonio; Deep Vellum, 2022. 

Glazova, Anna: For the Shrew, translated by Alex Niemi; Zephyr Press, 2022. Bilingual edition.

Gogol, Nikolai: Petersburg Tales, translated by Dora O’Brien; Alma Classics, 2022.

Gogol, Nikolai: A Place Bewitched and Other Stories, translated by Constance Garnett, edited by Natasha Randall; Picador.

Grossman, Vasily: The People Immortal, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, with an introduction and afterword by Robert Chandler and Julia Volohova, original Russian text edited by Julia Volohova; NYRB, September 2022.

Khersonsky, Boris and Ludmila: The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Selected Poems, edited by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky, translated by Polina Barskova, Aleks Sigal, Vladislav Davidzon, Olga Livshin, Valzhyna Mort. Eugene Ostashevsky, Diane Seuss, Katherine Young, Javier Zamora; Lost Horse Press.

Korotko, Alexander: War Poems, translated by Andrew Sheppard and Olha Ilchuk; Glagoslav, 2022. A trilingual edition with English, Ukrainian, and Russian.

Krzhizhanovsky, Sigizmund: Countries That Don’t Exist: Selected Nonfiction, edited by Jacob Emery and Alexander Spektor, with translations by Anthony Anemone, Caryl Emerson, Jacob Emery, Anne O. Fisher, Elizabeth F. Geballe, Reed Johnson, Tim Langen, Alisa Ballard Lin, Muireann Maguire, Benjamin Paloff, Karen Link Rosenflanz, Alexander Spektor, and Joanne Turnbull; Columbia University Press.

Kurkov, Andrey: Diary of an Invasion, translated by Boris Dralyuk; Mountain Leopard Press. A U.S. edition, from Deep Vellum, will be available in spring 2023. This book most definitely exists but, per Boris Dralyuk himself, it is not a translated book so I’m going to strike it but keep it in the post since I’m sure it’s of interest to many!

Kuzmin, Mikhail: New Hull, translated by Simona Schneider; Ugly Duckling Presse.

Kuznetsov, Sergey: The Round Dance of Water, translated by Valeriya Yermishova; Dalkey Archive Press, 2022.

Mandelstam, Osip: Centuries Encircle Me with Fire: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, compiled, edited, and translated by Ian Probstein; Academic Studies, Press, April 2022.

Mandelstam, Osip: The Voronezh Workbooks, translated by Alistair Noon; Shearsman Books.

Mandelstam, Osip: Occasional and Joke Poems, translated by Alistair Noon; Shearsman Books.

Mashinski, Irina: Giornata, translated by Maria Bloshteyn and Boris Dralyuk; Červená Barva Press, November 2022.

Meshchaninova, Nataliya: Stories of a Life, translated by Fiona Bell; Deep Vellum.

Osipov, Maxim, Kilometer 101, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and Alex Fleming, edited by Boris Dralyuk; NYRB, October 2022.

Paustovsky, Konstantin: The Story of a Life, translated by Douglas Smith; Vintage Classics (UK) and New York Review Books (US, coming February 2023).

Pavlov, Ivan: Pavlov on the Conditional Reflex: Papers, 1903-1936, translated by Olga Yokoyama; Oxford University Press. Wow.

Pilnyak, Boris: At the Doors and Other Stories, translated by Emily Laskin, Isaac Zisman, Louis Lozowick, Sofia Himmel, and John Cournos; Sublunary Editions, autumn 2022.

Pushkin, Alexander: Peter the Great’s African: Experiments in Prose, edited and with afterword by Robert Chandler, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, and Boris Dralyuk; NYRB, April 2022.

Pushkin, Alexander: Lyrics: Volume 4 (1829–37), translated by Roger Clarke, Carleton Copeland, John Coutts, James Falen and Avril Sokolov; Alma Classics. Bilingual edition.

Schwab, Leonid: Everburning Pilot; Cicada Press. This book is described as “A bi-lingual edition of Leonid Schwab’s poetry with an introduction by Maria Stepanova. Edited by Alexander Spektor, Anton Tenser, and Sibelan Forrester.” I’m not sure who translated but since it’s bilingual, I’m listing it.

Shevelev, Mikhail: Not Russian, translated by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner; Europa Editions.

Sorokin, Vladimir: Telluria, translated by Max Lawton; NYRB, August 2022.

Sorokin, Vladimir: Their Four Hearts, translated by Max Lawton; Dalkey Archive Press, April 2022.

Tolstoy, Lev: Tolstoy as Philosopher: Essential Short Writings (1835-1910): An Anthology, edited, translated, and introduced by Inessa Medzhibovskaya; Academic Studies Press, October 2022.

Tsvetaeva, Marina: Head on a Gleaming Plate, translated by Christopher Whyte; Shearsman Books. Poems from 1917-1918.

Turgenev, Ivan: Fathers and Children, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater; NYRB; August 2022.

Turgenev, Ivan: Parasha and Other Poems, translated by Michael Pursglove; Alma Classics. Bilingual edition.

Various: Verses on the Vanguard from Maria Galina, Ekaterina Simonova, Ivan Sokolov, Nikita Sungatov, Alexandra Tsibulya, and Oksana Vasyakina, translated by Elina Alter, Catherine Ciepiela, Anna Halberstadt, Ainsley Morse, Kevin Platt, and Valeriya Yermishova; a bilingual edition from Deep Vellum.

Various: This Is Us Losing Count; Two Lines Press. Poets and translators are: Alla Gorbunova/Elina Alter, Ekaterina Simonova/Il’ia Karagulin, Galina Rymbu/Eugene Ostashevsky, Olga Sedakova/Martha Kelly, Nikita Sungatov/Valeriya Yermishova, Irina Kotova/Matvei Yankelevich, Aleksandra Tsibulia/Catherine Ciepiela, and Oksana Vasyakina/Elina Alter. 

Various: Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan, stories translated from the Kazakh by Zaure Batayeva, stories translated from the Russian by Sam Brezeale, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, with a foreword by Gabriel McGuire; Gaudy Boy, July 2022.

Vodolazkin, Eugene: Brisbane, translated by Marian Schwartz; Plough, 2022.

Vysotsky, Vladimir: Selected Works, translated by John Farndon and Olga Nakston; Glagoslav, 2022. A bilingual (Russian and English) edition.

Bonus: Lost Horse Press has a Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series, which you can learn about here.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual. I know some of the translators, authors, and publishers whose work is on this list.

Up Next. All those books lined up on my shelf… which I’m going to bundle into a few posts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Is Truth Better Than Fiction? 2022’s Big Book Winners

As I sit down to finally write this post, four five days late, truth really does feel stranger than fiction: all three jury prizes for this year’s Big Book Award went to works of nonfiction. Pavel Basinsky won the top prize for his Подлинная история Анны Карениной (The True Story of Anna Karenina). This is Basinsky’s second Big Book win; the first was back in 2010, for Лев Толстой: Бегство из рая (Leo Tolstoy: Flight From Paradise, in Glagoslav’s translation by Huw Davies and Scott Moss).

This year’s second jury prize went to Alexei Varlamov for Имя Розанова (The Name of Rozanov), a biography of Vasily Rozanov. Sergei Belyakov took third prize for Парижские мальчики в сталинской Москве (Parisian Boys in Stalinist Moscow), about Parisian men (including Marina Tsvetaeva’s son, Georgy Efron) and their life and times in Stalinist Moscow.

Readers’ choice voters were more generous to fiction. Guzel Yakhina’s Эшелон на Самарканд (Train to Samarkand), set during the Civil War, won first prize. Basinsky’s True Story won second prize. And readers finished their troika with another novel: Anna Matveeva’s Каждые сто лет (Every Hundred Years).

I’ll conclude by saying that, yes, the three nonfiction awards mystify me more than a bit, even considering comments I’ve read on social media, theorizing about jurors’ voting habits during wartime. Of course my post about this year’s finalists (it’s here!) had me “scratching my head” about the shortlist back in June of this annus horribilis…

P.S. Here, from Big Book, is the rundown of jury voting. As you can see, the numbers are very, very close.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. I translated Yakhina’s Zuleikha. I resigned from the Big Book Award’s Literary Academy (jury) earlier this year.

Up Next: A pile of books that I’m going to bundle into a series of posts. A list of 2022’s new translations; I’m suspecting numbers will be down considerably this year because of the war.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Hey, Dima! Congratulations on Your Awards for Hey, Sasha!

I’m days late and many dollars short here but very happy to write that Dmitry Danilov won two awards this fall for his novel Саша, привет! (Hey, Sasha!). He won Prose of the Year about two weeks ago and just yesterday he won the Yasnaya Polyana Award, too. Before I go on about Sasha, I should note that Islam Khanipaev won the YP reader’s choice award for his Типа я, which I’ve called Like Me; the book got an impressive 46.3% of the vote.

I read Hey, Sasha! an embarrassingly long time ago. It was so long ago (last year…) that I don’t remember when Danilov sent me the text. Or even which device I read it on. What I do remember, on conscious and subconscious levels, is the reading itself. Everything of Danilov’s that I’ve read – Description of a City, Horizontal Position, and “Black and Green” – speaks to me in similar ways by (to borrow a phrase from his Description) getting into my livers. What’s most remarkable about the fact that Danilov’s prose reaches my livers is that his writing initially looks so simple, almost rudimentary. But he uses that apparent simplicity to great effect, constructing texts that have a surprisingly emotional, almost moving effect. As I wrote in my post about Description of a City, “Danilov has been called a new realist but his realism is a very particular and peculiar realism. His realism is abstract and almost transcendent, a realism with a lot of остранение, defamiliarization.”

With Hey, Sasha!, Danilov adds a huge dose of absurdity to the usual elements of his realism. The short plot summary is that a man, Sergei, a university instructor, commits a moral crime by having consensual sex with a woman under twenty-one. Perpetrators of moral and economic crimes (but not violent crimes) are subject to capital punishment so he’s sentenced to death. He’s imprisoned in a hotel-like place in central Moscow and forced each day to face the possibility that he’ll be shot during a walk down a certain hallway. After that walk, he’s allowed to go out to a park. The hotel-like facility is described as “three-star” and meals are brought to him. Sergei lectures his students over Zoom, though they seem to raise their virtual hands more to ask about their instructor’s situation than to discuss the literature they’re reading. Meanwhile, his wife and the young woman have forgiven him. (His wife, by the way, also teaches literature and deals caustically with students’ curiosity about her husband, ultimately finishing a lecture on the Serapion Brothers by telling her students to read Wikipedia.) Everybody’s forgiven Sergei but the state.

My favorite scenes in this novel – the novel, by the way, reads like a wily blend of a script and a conventional novel – involve religion. Our (anti?)hero receives brief visits from a lama, a rabbi, a priest, and an mullah. None of them really feel they have much to offer to Sergei and they all pretty much urge him to waive his right to have them visit. They speak in rather similar terms, though I particularly liked the rabbi for discussing soccer. And, really, what could the two of them talk about other than sports? As Sergei says, he’s essentially already a dead man. We’ll all die, whether we’re shot in that metaphorical hallway or hit by a chance meteor or stricken by some uncontrollable disease. There’s always something. The point is that no matter who we are, we get up in the morning and walk down some version of that hallway, knowing we might be finished. But we work hard at forgetting, so we can live…

That’s all familiar material – Hey, Sasha! reminds in many ways of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, as one article or social media post (which I now can’t find!) reminded me yesterday – but, as always, Danilov inhabits it and makes it his own both. His stripped-down language and humor are perfect for a tell-it-like-it-is story of this sort. And then there are the Orwellian absurdities of society and the world these days. And isolation that almost reminds of lockdowns, complete with Zoom meetings, though most of us don’t have three-star hotel services that included meals. Best of all is that Hey, Sasha! got into my livers so thoroughly that I barely had to look at the text to remind myself of details, even all these many months after reading the book. I did forget Sergei’s name but I didn’t forget Danilov’s jokes or how the novel keeps flowing along. I also didn’t forget the most important thing: the feeling of mental claustrophobia I always get when I read successful fiction that addresses absurdity, death, and societal norms. I’m sure that feeling of claustrophobia arises largely because art, meaning literature in these cases, so resembles what we consider real life, particularly when depicting various forms of imprisonment, as Danilov, Nabokov, and so many others do.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Plus Danilov is a friend.

Up Next: My next attempt to chip away at my backlog…