Sunday, November 15, 2015

Narine Abgaryan’s People Who Are Always With Me

Narine Abgaryan’s Люди, которые всегда со мной (People Who Are Always With Me) is the second book from a fun little “summer surprise” book package I received from Abgaryan’s literary agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova. If the first book, Three Apples Fell from the Sky, can be described as magical realism, it might just be possible to describe People as a form of realistic magic: though People contains few touches of magic in its plot, Abgaryan’s warmth in portraying everyday twentieth-century reality, such as it is, in Berd, Armenia, feels like a unique form of writerly magic.

Describing People requires a unique form of bloggerly magic that I don’t think I possess. Given my deficiency, I’ll look at certain aspects of the book that particularly struck me. Abgaryan jumps around in time, and between a close third-person narrator and a little girl, who’s known simply as Devochka, or the Little Girl. (There’s a reason for that; I won’t reveal it.) The novel is told episodically, and it opens (pretty much, more on this below) with the Little Girl and her mother making a trip to a somewhat scary neighbor’s to buy milk. I love the Little Girl’s voice, talking about kasha she thinks tastes disgusting, a cow named Marishka, and how adults are pretty smart but really should haven’t dreamt up that disgusting mannaya kasha, the stuff I grew up calling Cream of Wheat. I loved Cream of Wheat as a child and I love the day-to-day details in People: there’s also a milk mustache, outhouse humor, and family photos. And differences in the smells of old and new buildings…

Maybe I read too much when I was hungry but I came away with particularly vivid pictures of family meals and foods: among other treats, there’s spiced dried meat known as basturma and dried sausage called sudzhuk, a scented bakery, and slices of potato with cheese, which, of course, made me craziest of all. More than anything, though, there’s family: mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts and uncles, aunties, grandparents, and friends who are so close they’re part of the family, too. All these people, of course, are who should remain with us—and, of course with the Little Girl—after their death. I have no idea how Abgaryan somehow manages to avoid sappiness when the Little Girl’s father tells her they will remain behind her, like wings. Somehow the word “lovely” fits the book doubly: not only does it contain beautiful accounts of daily life but it depicts love among family and friends.

People Who Are Always With Me covers multiple generations and Abgaryan includes historical references, some of which relate to the Armenian genocide and ongoing hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Though many of the details in those passages are very good—there’s a pogrom in Baku and suspenseful travel at a dangerous time—and the characters’ experiences feel organic to the story, for my taste, occasional lines felt a bit too expository, too nonfictionish, for the novel, particularly in the very beginning. That’s a very minor complaint, though, given episodes where, for example, a doctor explains his atheism or the Little Girl is said to be too little to grasp the flow of time because each instant is infinity and eternity for her. In many senses, that’s exactly what the book is about: retaining an element of childhood, the part of life when, as the Little Girl’s mother notes, “you love everybody and don’t hold grudges.” I don’t think it’s an accident that Abgaryan gave the Little Girl’s mother the name Vera, which means “faith.”

Disclaimers: The usual. And thank you to BGS for the Abgaryan books, which I truly enjoyed. I should also note that I translated an excerpt from Abgaryan’s Three Apples for BGS.

Up Next: More books. A roundup about the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), and Anna Matveeva’s story collection Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties). I also somehow shoehorned in Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, which was a decent travel companion but rather disappointing for a major award winner. And, of course, a trip report about the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

NOSE, the Short(list) Version

Well, dear readers, it’s time for a short NOSE post: the НОС/NOSE Award named its finalists in late October, when I was in Arizona enjoying sidewalk dining and wearing short sleeves. I thank the NOSE people for a nice, fitting shortlist to post this week since I came back from Tucson—where this year’s American Literary Translators Association conference was held—with a silly cold and probably couldn’t have put enough thoughts together for a real book post this week.

Here’s the seven-book shortlist for 2015. Perhaps what’s most interesting here is that there aren’t many repeaters: yes, Guzel Yakhina has already won the Prose of the Year and Yasnaya Polyana Awards and sure, Danila Zaitsev was also named a Yasnaya Polyana finalist, but I don’t think any of the other writers have been finalists for major awards this year. But stop the presses! I remembered just before posting that that’s simply not true: Polina Barskova’s book is a finalist for the Bely Award, for which the shortlists are here. Im happy to report that Lena Eltang’s Cartagena is on the prose shortlist, too. But I do ramble. Here’s the NOSE list!

  • Aleksandr Ilyanen: Пенсия (Pension). According to the book’s description, this is another novel about a nonexistent Petersburg; there’s lots of language play, though the pension is literal. Apparently an odd love story. Igor Gulin’s review on Kommersant. Author interview on Of the books completely new to me, this one intrigues me most, perhaps because of the Petersburg element.
  • A. Nune: Дневник для друзей (A Diary for Friends). (excerpt) Based on an actual diary written while spending time in a hospice in East Berlin.
  • Polina Barskova: Живые картинки (Living Pictures) is a book of prose by a poet, a collection of twelve pieces that came out of Barskova’s research into the history of the Leningrad blockade (excerpt). Knowing Polina’s dedication to this subject, I can’t imagine that the book isn’t interesting. Also on the NatsBest long list.
  • Tatiana Bogatyreva: Марианская впадинa (The Mariana Trench). I read this novella/long story in the journal Искусство кино a year or so ago. (It didn’t make much of an impression, no pun intended.)
  • Danila Zaitsev: Повесть и житие Данилы Терентьевича Зайцева (The Life and Tale of Danila Terentyevich Zaitsev). In which a Russian Old Believer born in China and living in Argentina tells his story. A Yasnaya Polyana Award finalist and Booker longlister.
  • Maria Golovanivskaya: Пангея (Pangea). Apparently a historical fantasy novel (or dystopia?) in brief stories/episodes; a cast of over a hundred characters… A long review that I’m saving for later. And another.
  • Guzel’ Yakhina: Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes). A Big Book and Booker finalist, as well as the 2015 Yasnaya Polyana winner; I loved translating excerpts for Yakhina’s literary agency. A historical novel in which a kulak woman is exiled. (previous post)

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: So many books! More books from the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), and Anna Matveeva’s story collection Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties). Also: Narine Abgaryan’s People Who Are Always With Me. And, of course, a trip report on the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual, with lots of Russian translators.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

2015 Yasnaya Polyana Award Winners

The winners of the 2015 Yasnaya Polyana Award were announced today in Moscow. Here, quickly, and from breakfast at the Atlanta airpirt--I'm on my way to Tucson for the American Literary Translator Association conference--are the winners. Apologies for the cut and paste work!

For the “XXI Century”award:
Guzel’ Yakhina’s Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes). Also my favorite Big Book finalist. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and translating excerpts. A lovely historical novel in which a kulak woman is exiled and finds a new life.

For the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” prize:

Valerii Bylinski’s Риф (Reef). A collection of stories and a novella.

Finally, Andrei Bitov won the prize I don't remember the name of. But will add later from Arizona!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Final Goodbye to Margarita Khemlin

Learning yesterday morning that Margarita Khemlin had died during the night, apparently after her heart stopped, made for a horribly sad wakeup and some unsteady days. She was only 55; I will miss her and her writing. Rita was more than just a favorite writer: she was also the first author I chose, myself, to translate, and it was a treat to see her at Russian literature events in various places over the last several years. I feel tremendous respect, affection, and gratitude to her, as a writer and as a person.

Rita was funny (she loved calling me “Becky” because I reminded her of Becky Thatcher) and she was generous (she let me translate her when I had no translation credits whatsoever) but of course it was her writing that endeared her to me first, long before we corresponded or met. The initial appeal of her writing was in its humor and generosity, too, but her books grew on me because of Rita’s ability to describe the long-term effects of World War 2, things Rita grew up with in her native Ukraine. I love her use of skaz technique, I love her complex characters, I love the amber necklace she made for me (it’s a sort of good luck charm for my readings), and I love remembering the time I spent with her.

I’m going to list, below, Rita’s works that have been translated into English and links to previous posts about her books. Before I do that, though, here’s a lovely piece for Izvestia written by Evgenia Korobkova that speaks of Rita’s achievements and character. Among other things, Korobkova mentions that Rita was to have been jury chair for the Russian Booker next year.

Works translated into English:
  • The Investigator (Дознаватель), translated by Melanie Moore, was published on October 15, 2015.
  • “Shady Business” (“Темное дело”), translated by me, was published in the journal Subtropics, Issue 17, winter/spring 2014. (A brief description here.)
  • “Basya Solomonovna’s Third World War” (“Третья мировая Баси Соломоновны”), translated by me, was first published in Two Lines XVIII/Counterfeits and reprinted in the Read Russia! anthology, available free, in PDF form, here. (The Russian originals of both the stories I translated are here.)

Past posts:

Friday, October 16, 2015

Happy Birthday to the Bookshelf: The Blog Turns Eight

It’s October 16, so the cupcake is back! If there’s a cupcake to eat this year, it’ll be eaten in Florida… and since I’m writing this post before I travel, I can’t be sure whether to say it’s hot, sunshiny, humid, beautiful, or something else (thunderstormy?) in Naples, but I can be sure it will be nice to see my parents, aunt, and cousins, for a family wedding.

No matter what the weather, I send a big thanks to all of you who read the blog, whether regularly or occasionally. I’m glad so many of you seem to find it helpful and/or enjoyable! Thank you.

The big theme for the last year is that work has been super-busy (understatement!) with translations: editing and revising Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus (previous post), turning in a draft of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina (previous post), and getting started on Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov (as a 2014 highlight). I’m also excited that three translations were released this year: Vladislav Otroshenko’s Addendum to a Photo Album (favorite review), Marina Stepnova’s The Woman of Lazarus (a lovely review), and Laurus (reviews: RBTH, Asymptote, Complete Review), which was released in the U.S. this Tuesday.

I intend no self-indulgence whatsoever in posting the reviews: what’s most important is that non-Russian readers really, truly can understand and appreciate Russian fiction in English translation. I already knew that and you probably already knew that, too, if you’re reading this blog post, but I keep running into stereotypes about Russian fiction that you probably hear, too: the books are (too) long, (too) serious, (too) heady, and (too) all sorts of other things. Though I think this is slowly changing, sometimes it feels to me like there’s some sort of Pavlovian response: hearing "Russian fiction" triggers thoughts of Heavy, Unreadable Stuff that’s just way too serious for mere mortals to finish a book in one lifetime. (Hmm, maybe this has been bothering me?!) The responses to Laurus have been especially heartening, not just because there’s been a fair number of reviews—Oneworld Publications, who just so happened to publish Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings in the UK, knows its books and its readers and does a fantastic job getting its books out—but because the reviewers (and not just these but others, from trade publications) are so appreciative of Vodolazkin’s play with time and language. I’m glad that came through in the translation.

All “my” translations are, of course, group efforts that involve my colleague Liza Prudovskaya, who checks a draft for each of my books, plus head editors, copy editors, proofreaders, and friends and colleagues with specific knowledge of specific related subjects. It’s also wonderful to work with authors—all the above—who are so patient in answering my odd questions about the horizons and flexibility of the words and expressions they use. Thank you to everyone who’s helped and thank you to all of you who have bought and/or asked about my translations. I appreciate your trust! Literary translation is not (not always, anyway) the lonely profession it’s imagined to be.

Moving on to blog stats, I’ll start by repeating last year’s line. “Google Analytics provides fewer interesting data about searches these days but there’s still plenty about geography and popular posts”:

Geography. As in years past, the United States continues to lead in visitor sessions, followed by United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, and Germany. In the top ten countries for visitorship, though, it’s readers from The Netherlands and France who read the most, with 2.02 and 1.84 pages/session, respectively, and over two minutes for average time length, too. By city, the top five are New York, (not set), London, Moscow, and Oxford, with Arlington Heights not far behind; I’ll list it to compensate for (not set).

Popular Posts. The most popular landing pages again this year “other than the home page, [are] Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers, followed by Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature.” (Cut and paste is a marvelous thing.) I’m happy that the new translations list for 2014 is next, followed by my posts on Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Sologub’s The Petty Demon. The most popular post about a contemporary book concerns Pelevin’s Omon Ra, at number nine; Pelevin’s the only contemporary writer in the top ten.

Common and Odd Search Terms. This used to be my favorite category, but this year it’s “(not provided)”, which leads by many, many, many thousands over the next term, which is “(not set)”. The rest of the top ten is pretty dull, with variations obviously created by people looking for easy Russian-language reading. I’m happy to say, though, that the only name in the top ten is one I know: “marina stepnova.” A few terms that made me happy: denisov’s pronunciation, best compromise in the compromise dovlatov, cat manhattan high line, fur hat symbolism in dr zhivago, i don’t like Russian winters, and war and peace Natasha famous passages flirtation. I’ll stop on that happy note!

Finally, another huge and hearty thank you very much to all of you for your visits, comments, notes, and love of Russian literature. See you again next year for another cupcake! For now, signing off from Florida.
File:Historic Naples FA.JPG
"The historic centre of Naples, Florida"
Disclaimers. The usual.

Photo Credits: MJJR for Naples, via Creative Commons; nazreth, via stock.xchng, for the cupcake.