Sunday, October 19, 2014

Moscow Trip Report: Book Fair, Kongress, and Miscellany

My trip to Moscow last month turned out to be even more packed with events, meetings, and, of course, books than I’d expected… I’ll just get right to it with a few highlights…

With visible soft sign.
Andrei Platonov. I visited Andrei Platonov’s grave at the Armenian Cemetery on my first full day in Moscow: I wasn’t quite sure where to find Platonov and had to ask several people before a helpful security guard and his friend (who’d never heard of Platonov and grilled me about what to read) led me to Platonov’s grave. I would certainly have found it without the guard: two people were celebrating Platonov’s life, graveside, with vodka and a book. There’s something a bit odd about Platonov’s gravestone: at certain times, depending on the sun’s angle, the soft sign at the end of the word писатель (writer) seems to disappear. I noticed it was missing as we stood, talking, and everyone assured me it existed… and it did reappear a while later. Platonov turned up again, in the form of a book of his letters, published in 2013 by Elena Shubina’s imprint at AST: writer Vladimir Sharov very kindly gave me his extra copy and it’s a nice, heavy book with lots of photos, footnotes, and a lengthy introduction by Natalya Kornienko. For more: EricNaiman’s review in The Times LiterarySupplement complements positive comments I heard from a writer friend.

The Congress of Literary Translators. The main reason I went to Moscow was the Congress of Literary Translators, hosted by the Institute of [Literary] Translation at the Library of Foreign Literature. Each attendee presents a brief paper within a small “section”: with over 200 attendees from 55 countries, there were nine simultaneous sections. That might sound like a madhouse but everything seems to work itself out. Scheduling conflicts meant I missed a few talks I wanted to hear, but each section I attended magically worked out to a manageable size that allowed dialogue. I’ve come to appreciate the short presentations, too: at first it felt difficult to come up with something meaningful and brief but I now think of the mini-papers as executive summaries or micro-length case studies of current work… My paper addressed usage and translation of old language in contemporary fiction, drawing on my work on Marina Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus, Vladislav Otroshenko’s Addendum to a Photo Album, and Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Laurus. I spoke most about Laurus since I could offer a method for my handling of old Russian words: I have a raft of reference materials but find it particularly useful to compare Bible translations (the Elizabeth and Tyndale translations) on the STEP Bible site from Tyndale House at the University of Cambridge. One of the high points of my Kongress was the chance to speak with Vodolazkin about Laurus—particularly that old language—and my translation. During a joint evening session with Valerii Popov, Vodolazkin, who’s a scholar of Russian medieval literature at Pushkin House, mentioned that he had to get away from the philological before he could write the book: he didn’t want to write a professory book. And he didn’t which is why, I think, his medieval setting and occasional archaisms work so well, so organically… As for other papers, I particularly enjoyed Christine Mestre’s talk about translating dialogue in Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina’s The Little Man: Christine mentioned topics including mistakes in characters’ speech and handling details on what people do as they speak. The Little Man is one of the books I brought home so I’ll be watching for those elements. A few other papers of interest: Margherita Crepax on enriching language through translation; Oliver Ready on his translation of Vladimir Sharov’s Before & During, which I’d just read; and Kristina Rotkirch on Margarita Khemlin.

The Moscow International Book Fair. I made two trips to the book fair this year: beyond more opportunities to buy books and hear presentations, the weather was so nice I was more than happy to make the trip twice and do more walking between the Metro and the pavilion at VDNKh where the book fair is held! My biggest book fair highlight was probably hearing Marina Stepnova speak and then meeting her when I asked her to sign a copy of her new novel, Безбожный переулок, known in English as Italian Lessons, about a Moscow doctor and, well, freedom. Another highlight: meeting, by chance, Viktor Remizov, author of Воля вольная, known in English as Ashes and Dust, which I’m reading now. Remizov’s book looks at freedom, too, but from a completely different angle: through hunters and fishermen in the Russian Far East. They’re an odd pair to read one after the other but both are very good. I also bought Tatyana Tolstaya’s collection Легкие миры. Among other things…

All Those Other Books. It’s obvious from the photo why my checked baggage was overweight this time! Fortunately, all I had to do to avoid charges was pull out the copy of Sofia Lubensk(a)y(a)’s idiom/phraseology dictionary and stick it in my (wheeled) carry-on bag. This isn’t the updated 2014 edition of Lubensky’s Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms but, at 500 rubles, the 2004 edition is easy on the budget. As is the new Ozhegov dictionary I bought in the cheap-paper edition to save space and weight—it has 43,000 more words than my (very!) old Ozhegov but takes up less than half the space. My new dictionary of Russian Orthodox terms (for children!) is very helpful in translating Laurus, as is the “almanac” Текст и традиция (Text and Tradition), which Vodolazkin gave me: it includes his very engaging article about medieval writing and contemporary literature. And then there’s an anthology of Russian translations of contemporary Georgian poetry, compiled by poets Maxim Amelin and Shota Iatashvili, both of whom were at the Kongress… I loved hearing various translators read some of the poems at an evening presentation, particularly since I knew next to nothing about contemporary Georgian poetry before meeting Shota. I also brought back a few “thick” journals that I bought at the book fair: the woman at the thick journal booth particularly recommended a few specific novels (she even threw in a free issue so I could finish one of them!) so I bought those issues and then, of course, started by randomly reading articles and reviews. I wish it were more practical/reliable to subscribe to a journal or two. As for the other books in the photo, it’s hard to pick favorites but I’m particularly looking forward to Zakhar Prilepin’s The Cloister, which many people recommended, Aleksei Nikitin’s Victory Park, and Aleksei Tolstoy’s Engineer Garin’s Hyperboloid, which I’ve always wanted to read, if only because of the word “hyperboloid.”

Disclaimers & Disclosures: The usual. I work on occasional projects for the Institute of Translation, which subsidized many of my travel expenses, and Read Russia. Many of the books in the photo were gifts. Thank you!

Up Next. Yasnaya Polyana Award winners on Tuesday. Then books galore… After something of a summer slump, I’ve been having a great reading run, starting with Evgeny Vodolazkin’s first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, and followed by Marina Stepnova’s latest book, Italian Lessons and Viktor Remizov’s Ashes and Dust. There’s also a bunch of books I’ve been reading in English. I’m glad to have lots of books waiting for posts: after Ashes and Dust, my next Russian-language book will likely be Zakhar Prilepin’s rather long (okay, very long) The Cloister, which has relatively small print, too, meaning it will take some time.

Image Credit. Platonov’s grave photo by Andranikpasha, through Wikipedia Commons.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Happy Birthday to the Bookshelf!

Another October 16, another cupcake! The blog turns seven on this blustery day and the feelings I mentioned two years ago—using the words “gratifying” and “humbling”— seem to have doubled or tripled or quadrupled. I send very heartfelt thanks to all of you who visit, whether regularly or occasionally, and find my posts useful. I’m glad you enjoy them!

As always, there’s something a little new and different this year. For one thing, the bookshelf itself, which has grown into a fairly large installation of several bookcases, is moving. Upstairs. Into the living room and out of the mudroom. The reason for the move has nothing to do with a more prestigious or spacious location for the books and everything to do with a weird domino effect… the first block was toppled, of course, by a junior cat who gnaws on shoe leather and laces. The other new and different is that I’m translating even more this year, working now on Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Laurus, with Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina waiting for me. Two other books—Vladislav Otroshenko’s Addendum to a Photo Album and Marina Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus—are in various stages of editing. It’s an understatement to say the words “gratifying” and “humbling” apply here, too. I love my books and I love my work.

As is traditional, here are a few annual report statistics. Google Analytics provides fewer interesting data about searches these days but there’s still plenty about geography and popular posts:

Geography. The United States still leads in sheer visitor sessions, followed by United Kingdom, Russia, Ukraine, and Canada. In terms of how much people read, though, among the top ten visiting countries, visitors in Italy read more pages per session (1.92), followed by those in the Netherlands (1.9), and then the UK and Canada (1.72). In terms of cities, the top five were New York, London, Kyiv, Moscow, and Kerrville, Texas. Hmm.

Popular Posts. As far as landing pages go, the most popular, other than the home page, is Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers, followed by Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature. These were both in the top three last year, too. After those posts come pieces about “The Overcoat,” The Belkin Tales, and The Petty Demon, favorites all, though last year’s most popular classic, A Hero of Our Time, didn’t make the top 10 posts this year. It was kept away by posts with a list of new translations for 2014, two Kuprin stories, Laurus, and two of Gogol’s Petersburg stories. Needless to say, I’m particularly glad Laurus attracts attention—it’s a wonderful book and my most visited contemporary fiction post—and I’m very grateful people use the translation list. That reminds me to remind translators and publishers: please send information about what’s coming in 2015. I’m gathering listings!

Common and Odd Search Terms. Well, there aren’t many these days: the most common terms are typically dull things about finding Russian literature. Since many searches don’t reveal terms these days, even the top number is low, 25 for lizok’s bookshelf. The top search for a specific book is, interestingly enough, freedom factory kseniya buksha, which I haven’t even read, followed by sanctuary 3/9. Other contemporary terms in the top 20 are vodolazkin (two variations), sergei samsonov/ russian writer, and “marina stepnova.” Only two classics are in the top 20: the petty demon summary and a hero of our time summary. Hmm, summaries. Even looking through lots of terms, I don’t find much unintentional humor these days, just straightforward requests for analysis, summaries, themes, and titles though the search for are there any fight scenes in war and peace is a bit peculiar.

I’ll stop there, with the reference to War and Peace, since it is, still, my all-time favorite. Thank you again for your visits, your comments, and your notes. I look forward to meeting more of you over the next year, whether virtually or in real life!

Up Next: My has a lot piled up during the time I’ve been wearing myself out with a persistent, tickly, dry Moscow cough! Moscow trip report. Yasnaya Polyana Award winners. Then books galore… After something of a summer slump, I’ve had a great run, starting with Evgeny Vodolazkin’s first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, and Marina Stepnova’s latest book, Безбожный переулок, which is, wisely, being called Italian Lessons for English-language purposes. And now Viktor Remizov’s Воля вольная, which has, also wisely, been renamed for English-language purposes: Ashes and Dust. There’s also a bunch of books I’ve been reading in English. I’m glad to have lots of books waiting for posts: after Ashes and Dust, my next Russian-language book will be Zakhar Prilepin’s rather long (okay, very long) Обитель (The Cloister), which has relatively small print, too, meaning it will take some time.

Disclaimers/Disclosures: The usual.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

2014 Russian Booker Finalists

Here you go, Russian Booker fans… the 2014 short list, in Russian alphabetical order. Winners will be announced on December 5. The Russian Booker will award two prizes again this year: one to a “usual” winner, the other in the form of a grant to publish an English-language translation in the UK.
  • Anatolii Vishnevskii’s Жизнеописание Петра Степановича К. (The Story of the Life/Biography of Petr Stepanovich K.). The description of this book, which is evidently completely based on documents, is a little vague: it’s apparently about a man who lives a long life but wanted glory more than longevity, though longevity gives him a chance to see a lot. 

  • Natalya Gromova’s Ключ. Последняя Москва (The Key. The Last/Final Moscow). This one’s called an archival novel, and it apparently focuses largely on the 1930s and a Moscow that no longer exists. Gromova works at the Tsvetaeva house museum in Moscow. There’s more here. The Key is already a 2014 Big Book finalist.

  • Zakhar Prilepin’s Обитель (The Cloister). This novel about the Solovetsky Islands in the 1920s is already on the 2014 Big Book finalist list, and it won Book of the Year last month. I lugged it back from Moscow (it’s big) and plan to read it soon. Probably right after the next book on this list…

  • Viktor Remizov’s Воля вольная. (This is the book with the title that translates literally as something like Willful Will or Free Freedom but Remizov told me he’d use something closer to Soaring Will. Though he wasn’t even quite sure how to explain the title…) In any case, this is a novel in which a policeman celebrates his promotion in the wild with a friend and then there’s a conflict with a local… and much more. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  • Elena Skul’skaia’s Мраморный лебедь (The Marble Swan). According to Novaya gazeta, this is memoiristic writing about friends and family. Even a quick look at the text on the Zhurnal’nyi zal site shows that it’s made up of vignettes/tiny chapters.

  • Vladimir Sharov’s 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. Already a finalist for this year’s National Bestseller and Big Book awards.
One of the most interesting things about this year’s Booker short list, at least for me, is that four of the six books—Gromova, Prilepin, Remizov, and Sharov—are or will soon be (re)published by editor Elena Shubina’s imprint at AST. And what can I say but that Shubina is a force? And I just seem to gravitate to her books: she published two of the books I’m translating (Marina Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus and Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Laurus) and now I’m reading Stepnova’s new book and about to read Remizov’s (coming soon from Shubina/AST) and Prilepin’s. I’m also looking forward to reading the tome of Andrei Platonov’s letters she published last winter… more about that one in my Moscow trip report this weekend.

Disclaimers: Just the usual.

Up next: Moscow trip report. Then, at last, books! Evgeny Vodolazkin’s first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, which I enjoyed very, very much (footnotes have never been so much fun), and Marina Stepnova’s latest book, named for Moscow’s Bezbozhnyi Lane. Plus a few books I’ve read in English.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The 2014 NOS(E) Award Long List

I’m more than a little slow with this year’s NOS(E) Award long list, which came out nearly two weeks ago (!)…I’m still dragging a bit thanks to the never-ending cough I brought back from Moscow but, even worse in terms of speed, I was curious enough about some of these books to want to look them all up. Though many of the titles and writers were familiar from previous reading as well as other long- and shortlists, others were completely unknown to me. You can read any of the books on the long list and/or vote for a book on the NOS(E) site, here. NOS(E) will announce its shortlist on Halloween. Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order.

  • Valerii Aizenberg’s Квартирант (Tenant). According to critic Nikolai Alexandrov, Tenant is a monologue from someone looking to rent out an apartment, addressed to the prospective tenant. Aizenberg is also an artist and the book includes his art.
  • Svetlana Aleksievich’s Время сэконд хэнд (See Second-Hand Time for a detailed description and a list of translations). Nonfiction about Russia’s post-Soviet history.
  • Iurii Arabov’s Столкновение с бабочкой (Clash/Collision with a Butterfly). Hmm, chapter one is titled “Ленин в Цюрихе” (“Lenin in Zurich”); in an interview Arabov referred to the novel as alternative, “what if,” history.
  • Iurii Buida’s Яд и мёд (Poison and Honey). The only book on the list I’ve already read, if only in part. I bought the book in Moscow and plan to read the stories, too.
  • Linor Goralik’s Это называется так (This Is What It’s Called or some similar combination of words…). Short stories and a play.
  • Maksim Gureev’s Покоритель орнамента (Conqueror of Ornamentation? The title phrase is in the text but…). A mixture of the here-and-now and historical times… apparently involving a rug at a Crimean museum.
  • Aleksei Makushinsky’s Пароход в Аргентину (Steamship to Argentina). A novel about émigré life and Proustian searches. A 2014 Big Book Award finalist. Makushinsky, BTW, is Anatolii Rybakov’s son.
  • Anna Matveeva’s Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties). Short stories. Some, including (apparently) this one, were written for Snob.
  • Margarita Meklina’s Вместе со всеми (Along With Everyone) Short stories.
  • Iurii Miloslavskiii’s Приглашённая. Материалы к биографии Александры Федоровны Чумаковой (excerpt) (Invited. Materials Regarding the Biography of Alexandra Fedorovna Chumakova). About the Big Stuff: love, time, identity, rebirth, and death. Indescribable-sounding.
  • Aleksandr Mil’shtein’s Параллельная акция (A Parallel Action). A “novel-palimpsest,” according to this review.
  • Elena Minkina-Taicher’s Эффект Ребиндера (The Rehbinder Effect). Evidently a family saga. The effect in the title is described, stubbily, on Wikipedia here.
  • Aleksei Nikitin’s Victory Park (excerpt). I bought this novel in Moscow and am looking forward to reading it: it’s set in Kiev’s Victory Park area in the late 1980s. Short listed for the 2014 Russian Prize, novel category.
  • Maksim Osipov’s Волною морскою (With/On a Sea Wave, a watery wave, not a wave of the hand.). Eight medium-length (hi)stories set in various places. One is titled “Cape Cod.”
  • Vladimir Rafeenko’s Демон Декарта (Descartes’s Demon). About a man who’s reborn multiple times, wandering the world and wanting to choose one life/fate for himself.  
  • Vladimir Sorokin’s Теллурия (Tellurium). On my NatsBest long list post, I wrote: A polyphonic novel in 50 highly varying chapters. Also shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller and Big Book awards.
  • Tatyana Tolstaya’s Легкие миры (Light Worlds? In which light has the meaning of not heavy…) Short stories; the title story won the Belkin Award. I bought the book after hearing Tolstaya speak at the Moscow International Book Fair in early September.
  • Tatyana Freidensson’s Дети Третьего рейха (Children of the Third Reich). Nonfiction written by a journalist.
  • Aleksei Tsvetkov’s Король утопленников (King of the Drowned). Prose texts arranged by size… the first takes up less than a half a page, the last is around 80 pages long. NB: This book was not written by the poet named Aleksei Tsvetkov. This book currently leads NOS(E) reader voting.
  • Vladimir Sharov’s Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). In which one Kolya Gogol (a distant relative of familiar, beloved old Nikolai Gogol) finishes writing Dead Souls. An epistolary novel. Finalist for the 2014 National Bestseller and Big Book awards.
  • Oleg Yur’ev’s Диптих «Неизвестное письмо…» (Diptych. “An Unknown Letter…”) The letter is to Fyodor Dostoevsky, from one Ivan Pryzhov.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Moscow trip report. Then books: Evgeny Vodolazkin’s first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, and Marina Stepnova’s latest book, named for Moscow’s Bezbozhnyi Lane.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chizhov’s Translation

I enjoyed Evgenii Chizhov’s Перевод с подстрочника (literally: Translation from a Literal Translation) so much that I’m not quite sure how to write about it… I seem to have a particular problem writing about books I like this much, with especially particular problems when the books are as nicely composed as this one. At least I’m not alone: Leonid Yuzefovich’s summary of Translation notes that most reviews just don’t seem to capture what Translation is about…there’s just too much there and you just have to read the book. My favorite thread to pull in Translation involves Chizhov’s examination of identity: that thread intertwines with subthreads looking at doubles and various literal and metaphorical types of translation. I seem to read suitcaseloads of books about identity but Translation feels deeper—or perhaps more mysterious or lovely or down-to-earth in its metaphysicalness?—than most of my other reading.

Translation gets off to a promising start. Oleg Pechegin, a Moscow poet who’s not very successfully self-published, is on a stuffy train to Koshtyrbastan, a country you won’t find in any atlas unless you’re living in Pechegin’s world. While riding the train, Oleg meets a man who tells him what he claims are truths about Koshtyrbastan—scary things like bodies being thrown into a salt lake to disintegrate—but the man quickly disappears. I had the feeling (correct, it turns out) I’d just met a human Chekhovian gun. Oleg is on his way to Koshtyrbastan to do the job in the novel’s title: turn literal translations of the Koshtyr president’s popular and influential (of course!) poetry into poetic Russian translations.

Oleg goes from being a poet nobody knows or reads to a poet who’s been translated into Koshtyr. With a large print run. He now has a large house, too, as well as a comely young cook at his full disposal. All these perks come thanks to Oleg’s childhood friend Timur, who grew up in Moscow but has returned to his roots in Koshtyrbastan, where he has a high-level job and has taken a second wife. Timur has arranged everything, promising (pretty much, anyway) he can arrange for Oleg to meet the People’s Leader himself, Rakhmatkul Gulimov. Meanwhile, Chizhov mixes in flashbacks—they’re a little drawn-out for my taste, though they do end up having a place—showing Oleg and Timur back in Moscow, covering, among other things, an episode of jealousy involving Polina, Oleg’s ex-girlfriend, as well as Oleg’s friendship with a poet who dies in a fire.

Lots of fine threads shoot through the novel and its account of changes in Oleg’s identity: how he does and doesn’t adapt to an unfamiliar Eastern life, how he attempts to channel the People’s Leader, how he feels his foreignness in a place where he looks painfully different and doesn’t speak the language, and how he manages to make the translations work under, well, extraordinarily difficult conditions. Many things make this novel work for Chizhov, particularly a wonderful mix of genres—existential novel, psychological thriller, love story, fantasy, political thriller, even action, with a helicopter rescue scene—that keeps things moving.

I think it was Translation’s pervasive sense of creepiness that was responsible for keeping me up late reading: Koshtyrbastan’s isolation, Gulimov’s ubiquity, Koshtyrs’ admiration for Gulimov, and, especially, Oleg’s transformations as he searches for his inner Gulimov so he can complete the translations. Chizhov blends all this together beautifully: I was interested to see that his talk at this year’s “Writers’ Meetings” program at Yasnaya Polyana looked at the book “как роман о поиске вдохновения” (“a novel about the search for inspiration”). I was glad I didn’t know too much of the book’s plot before I started so don’t want to list specific ways Oleg searches for inspiration… but I will say that Chizhov incorporates various sorts of doubles and borders, both internal and external, as well as Gulimov’s idea that everyone is a poet. Oleg’s eventual and inevitable fate makes the book a wonderful cautionary tale that can be read on many levels, either as a fairly straightforward thriller or as an existential novel about a very human, rather confused, artist.

In the end, perhaps the novel’s epigraph from Osip Mandelshtam—“Поезия – это власть”/“Poetry is power”—is what matters most, even if one part of me wants to say that quotation is too big and broad to sum up the book and another part of me wants to say that quotation is too small and narrow to sum up the book. Then again, I couldn’t agree more with Yuzefovich that Chizhov doesn’t offer much in the way of answers… then again (again), as Yuzefovich continues, Chizhov doesn’t ask his questions in ways that make the reader expect them. And thank you, too, to Yuzefovich for helping me understand why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s because Chizhov left me with vivid pictures and questions that still won’t leave me alone more than a month after I finished the book. At least I’m not alone with those questions.

Translation is a finalist for the Big Book Award and the Yasnaya Polyana Prize and I’m very much hoping it wins something somewhere—as I mentioned in my Yasnaya Polyana post, it was probably the (prize-eligible, for calendar reasons) book I heard praised the most when I was in Moscow earlier this month.

Disclaimers. Theusual.

Up Next: The NOS(E) Award long list. A Moscow trip report. Books read in English.