Sunday, March 1, 2020

Three Hybrid Books: Barnes, Croft, and Zilberbourg

Well. This is a post I’ve been dreading for all too long, about three books I read in English. The dread comes from the fact of enjoying and admiring each so much for its creative blend of fact, fiction, and technique, plus readability, stylistics, and, hm, information imparted. I’d recommend each to nearly any reader, which may be the reason I find this trio so difficult to write about.

Taking the books alphabetically by author surname, I’ll start with Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time (Knopf), which I bought shortly after it came out but didn’t read until this winter. The Noise of Time is a biographical novel about Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer I knew all too little about, both musically and historically. Although Barnes loads the novel with details from Shostakovich’s life and career – official disapproval of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on Nikolai Leskov’s story, is a key event – I can’t say I’m much more knowledgeable about him now. That, however, is Barnes’s greatest success for this reader. He weaves his facts into a novel that creates a painful and (almost or completely, I can’t decide which) claustrophobic portrait of a man – Shostakovich – living under a totalitarian regime. I’ve read lots of fiction and nonfiction about the Stalin era, so much of Barnes’s material is familiar, though much remains unexplored, given that the topic is so large and important. He shows how political power uses its citizens – including musicians – so the “total” in “totalitarian” is firmly felt when absolute control is exerted over careers, lives, and private thinking. The Noise of Time reminds me in some ways of Lidia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna, which I’ve read several times, most recently in 2011 (here). Both these novels would be perfect reading for courses on the Soviet system and/or totalitarian regimes. Bonus in The Noise of Time: Barnes includes mentions of the song “The Chrysanthemums in the Garden Have Long Since Faded,” which also comes up in Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator and plays in the film adaptation of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch; it may need its own tag one of these days.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick, from Unnamed Press, is described on the copyright page of my advance reading copy as “a work of creative nonfiction,” where “names, identifying details, and places have been changed.” Its title page calls it a memoir; the combination works well. Writing in the third person, Jennifer describes the young lives of two very close sisters: Amy is a wunderkind and Zoe has a puzzling illness. The story of Amy’s love for and devotion to Zoe would have been beautiful on its own but Jennifer’s use of her own photographs (often with captions about words and language) as well as chapter titles like “Even though she knows she’s not supposed to, Amy looks forward to tornados” (we’re in Oklahoma, after all) give the book a snappiness that is paradoxically matter-of-fact. The first chapter, with its childhood Cheerios and mentions of catastrophes like AIDS, tornadoes, earthquakes, and the Holocaust, presages intersections of innocence and doom. Jennifer’s seemingly simple descriptions of Amy and Zoe’s lives find the perfect tone for capturing private youthful emotion and love as well as the world’s very public and very adult threats. That would have been plenty to suck me in but Amy is drawn to words and eventually to translation, making Homesick feel all the closer. To top that off, there’s a thick Russian layer in the book. Amy and Zoe learn Russian from a tutor named Sasha. They focus their attention on Soviet skaters during the Lillehammer Winter Olympics (their story is scarily like my obsession with Soviet gymnasts in Munich in 1972!). And Amy takes a course in Russian poetry with Yevgeny Yevtushenko. (Homesick even includes two Yevtushenko poems.) Although I’d recommend Homesick to any reader as a personal and vivid story about childhood, sisterhood, growing up, and the tolls of illness, I think it will particularly resonate with readers interested in writing, translation, and the power of words. And even more for those who, like me, came of age during the Soviet Union’s final decades. I know Jennifer through translation, which made Homesick feel all the more personal, beautiful, and meaningful. For more: Emily Rapp Black’s review, for the New York Times Sunday review section.

I met Olga Zilberbourg, the author of Like Water and Other Stories, (WTAW Press) through translation, too. Her Like Water is a slender volume containing stories of varying lengths, from one very funny short sentence to a few pages (this is most common) to thirteen pages long. As with any collection, I found some stories more compelling and intriguing than others, but the stories in Like Water flow together harmoniously, fulfilling Olga’s artist statement that says the stories “invite the reader to consider the way becoming a parent turns one’s lived experience into a battleground for potential identities.” Her later mention of “bicultural identity” is one of the big draws in Like Water because it crosses into her writing, too, with expressions, words, and items I associate with Russia(n) and don’t often run into in English, things like “parklets” and the comment “it’s not a conversation to have over the telephone” (“нетелефонный разговор,” something I’ve updated to email). There are also mentions of buckwheat groats (my beloved breakfast гречка) and “Anatoly Kashpirovsky, a television hypnotist whose healing séances came to be broadcast on Channel One…” That list might not sound at all earthshattering but Olga’s writing is a wonderful example of how vocabulary and experiences broaden when two cultures and languages coexist in one person’s brain. And she can even write unusual stories like “Computational Creativity,” in which a computer (your computer) goes to night school “while you sleep.” And then there’s “Sweet Porridge,” which invokes the Brothers Grimm in the first paragraph and includes fairytale motifs and cultural differences. Like Water brings many surprises.

I appreciate all that, though what I appreciate most is her ability to radically change the reader’s view of a story in its very last paragraph, as in “My Mother at the Shooting Range,” which begins with the narrator offering details about her mother’s Leningrad childhood, just after the Great Patriotic War. There’s a “remodeled air-raid shelter” in her apartment building’s basement – it’s used for shooting practice. “At the top of the back wall, painted sky blue, the metallic gray ducks with yellow noses are flying.” Some actual practice follows, then the narrator’s mother, as a little girl, helps the practicers gather pellets off the floor. And then, well, everything changes at the very end, in a way I won’t and can’t describe because it would ruin everything. But I found it so poignant and so unexpected that all I could scribble at the end was “Why, how does this work?!” This sort of inexplicable success, often in stories that initially feel unremarkable, is one of my favorite sensations when reading. (I have a special affection for fiction that initially feels unremarkable but then finds something tranformingly transcendent.) Most of all, I don’t want to know how Olga does this. One thing I do know, though, is that she has lots of inexplicable successes in Like Water, both at capturing cultural and linguistic differences, and at capturing idiosyncrasies in ways that, taken together, not only broaden language but broaden our views of humanity.

Rather than attempt to describe more about Olga’s stories – given their nuance, that’s an exercise as futile as trying to explain why a joke is funny – I’m going to paste in links to a couple from the collection that are available online so you can read them for yourself.
“Therapy. Or Something” on (I particularly loved this one!)

You might also be interested in reading Punctured Lines, a blog that Olga and Yelena Furman founded in 2019 to look at “post-Soviet literature in and outside the Former Soviet Union.”

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. As noted above, I know both Jennifer Croft (as well as, ever so slightly, her editor) and Olga Zilberbourg, both of whom sent me copies of their books.

Up next: Alexei Polyarinov’s Center of Gravity, which I’m still enjoying very much, perhaps because Polyarinov is also a master of making the unremarkable into something remarkable. Perhaps some Chekhov.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

National Bestseller Award Nominees for 2020

What better to think about on a cold, windy, sunny (yester)day than the 2020 list of 47 National Bestseller Award nominees? This year’s list seems a bit unusual for its lack of repeat nominations – books nominated by more than one person – and I think (suspect?) there are more unfamiliar names for me than usual. The new-to-me names (as well as the lesser-known publishers) are what I find so much fun about NatsBest. Alexander Pelevin’s The Four, a 2019 NatsBest finalist, was one of the most interesting books I read last year and I hadn’t known of either A. Pelevin or his publisher, Пятый Рим/Fifth Rome. NatsBest will announce its 2020 shortlist on April 16. For now, “Big Jury” reviews are already starting to appear on the NatsBest site. Here a few of the nominees…

Starting with books I’ve already read:
  • Liubov Barinova’s Ева (Eve) (previous post) tells of a killing and a kidnapping.
  • Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth) (previous post) tells, over more than 750 packed pages, of life and death. And that’s only volume one!
  • Dmitry Zakharov’s Средняя Эдда (Middle Edda) tells of a street/graffiti artist (Banksyesque) whose work has political twists and consequences. (I’m still reading, so this is a bit of a cheat.) I’d been looking forward to Middle Edda since I knew it would be very contemporary, but I’m finding it rather confusing because so many characters are doing so many things so very quickly. (I see that critic Galina Yuzefovich had a similar complaint about the book.) Most distressing, Middle Edda doesn’t even feel especially fresh, as literature, though it’s too early to say for sure.
  • Anna Kozlova’s Рюрик (Rurik) (previous post) tells of a boarding school student who hitches a ride with a motorcyclist and goes missing. Another big favorite from 2019, Rurik really did feel fresh.
Continuing with books I was already interested in reading:
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Сестромам (Sistermom) is a story collection; I’ve read and appreciated some of the stories already.
  • Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina’s Уран (Uranium) is apparently a documentary novel about events at and around the Sillamäe uranium plant in 1953.
Books by authors I’d never heard of is a big category this year, though not many of them (I’m limiting myself to books that are available now in printed form, not manuscripts) intrigue me enough to put them on a “buy-or-borrow” list. That said, several more almost made this chunk of my post because they sound suitably odd. I really do like odd. Belkin’s book about famous people (the великие/major/big of his title) and animals (the мелкие/minor/small of the title) – e.g. Dostoevsky and bedbugs, Napoleon and bees – sounds like it could be strange enough that it just might work. Here are a few that sound especially promising for the likes of me:
  • Tatyana Zamirovskaya’s Земля случайных чисел (The Land of Random Numbers) sounds like it’s about alternate universes and/or realities. Just my thing.
  • Boris Kletinich’s Моё частное бессмертие (My Personal Immortality) sounds like a polyphonic novel that covers lots of twentieth-century history. Also just my thing?
  • Vladimir Mironenko’s Алёшины сны (Alyosha’s Dreams) is apparently a mystical history tour that includes Rasputin (Grigory) and apocalypse. This definitely sounds like my thing.
Rasputin and apocalypse seem like a good note to end on before more snow and rain fall. Stay warm and dry, wherever you are!

Up Next: Those oft-promised books in English, to which I’ve added a third. Zakharov’s Middle Edda.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I have translated/am translating excerpts from several of the books on this year’s NatsBest list of nominees. I’ve received copies of some books on this year’s list from literary agents and/or authors and have ties to some nominators, authors, and agents, as well as the award’s secretary.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Death, Death, and More Death: Elizarov’s Earth

Well. Hm. Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth) really puts the “magnum” in “magnum opus” – Earth clocks in at 781 pages in length, 26 ounces in weight and took me a month or two to read. It’s hard to even know where or how to start since this first-person narrative has so many eccentricities: despite being thoroughly contemporary – among other factors, we have tons of мат (obscenities), sex, and a thoroughly post-Soviet set of characters – it’s also feels very classic to me, perhaps because it’s such a “large, loose, baggy monster.” (Thanks for the assist, Henry James!) With its long (and I do mean long) philosophical discussions, I sometimes wondered if I’d slipped through some weird cemetery wormhole into a Dostoevsky novel (not just his “Bobok,” which comes up in, of course, conversation and which I have yet to read). More than anything, though, I felt Bakhtin, Bakhtin, and more Bakhtin.

When I pulled out my Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, in Caryl Emerson’s translation, to visit the pages on carnivalization (with more decades-old underlining and notations than I’d remembered), I could see why. Long before Bakhtin warranted a mention on page 709, I’d been thinking of him thanks to the presence of numerous typical elements listed in PoDP: eccentricity, laughter, parody, (de)crowning, world turned upside down, and various dualisms, like, say, life and death. (There’s also lots of drinking and sex.) The gravediggers (clowns!) in Hamlet get a mention, too, BTW.

But I digress already, rather like Elizarov’s characters… So. Vladimir “Volodya” Krotyshev (“Krot” for short, it means “Mole”), a young man who’s recently finished his military service in a construction battalion where, yes, he dug, meaning shoveled, tells a bit about his childhood and a whole lot about the brief month or two after demob. Writer, scholar, and critic Andrei Astvatsaturov looks at Earth, in this review for Gorky, as describing various phases of Volodya’s initiation. That description seems very apt to me; the word “initiation” even comes up late in the book, when it’s mentioned during a (very long) conversation, in the context of Volodya’s military service, which, irony of ironies, essentially lacked hazing. Krotyshev learns of funerals in kindergarten when he and classmates dig graves for insects, he learns of family dysfunction through his parents’ split and his father’s habit of changing jobs when he feels offended, he learns of fealty when his (older and rather sketchy) half-brother Nikita hires him to go into the monument business, he learns about sex and love and lust with Nikita’s girlfriend Alina, he learns of philosophy and tattoos from Alina, who’s philosophically inked up (Astvatsaturov aptly, again, uses the word “surrealistic” in describing her)… I could go on and on because pretty much everything in the book involves Volodya, who’s something of a blank slate, being initiated into something. This helps explain why (after Alina and Nikita are done, Nikita skips town, and Volodya moves on to another part of the death industry) one of Volodya’s job interviews (with tour!) goes on for sixty or seventy pages; it’s almost a self-contained novella. I shouldn’t forget to mention that Volodya and Nikita both have “biological clocks” that their father set for them at birth: they’re to wind them regularly so they never stop. They faithfully carry them, always, except when they’re at summer camp or in prison, when their father watches the watches.

Despite the seriousness of death, initiations, and hardcore philosophy, Elizarov makes Earth very entertaining, often weird. I found the kindergarten bug funerals rather sweet and there’s lots of humor. One funeral industry office has a Freddie Mercury poster that reads “Who Wants to Live Forever.” Alina dreams of neo-Nazi musicals after seeing The Producers. There’s gross stuff, like Volodya barfing at the table after having too much to drink. This is shortly after he says he feels like he’s sitting on a still train and the train on the next track starts moving; I know that feeling all too well and it reminded me of Sartre for the simple fact of nausea and Nausea. Later on that page we come to a discussion of corpses, language, and semiotic dichotomies, where, (long story short!) the cemetery becomes a polyphonic text. (“A cemetery of dead languages,” says one character.) And was it puerile of me to mark that a suppository is used as a bookmark in a bathroom copy of In Search of Lost Time? I think Bakhtin would approve; talk about the high and the low!

Do I know what this all adds up to? No. Earth ends in a cliffhanger. And it’s so long and dense with philosophy and characters that it can be hard to keep track of, well, philosophies and characters. (My usual disclaimer: I know this is one of my readerly shortcomings, especially since I’m painfully unread in philosophy.) Some of the characters – and/or their beliefs and behaviors – wore on my nerves. But even at their very most annoying (I think one takes way too much pleasure and pride in his wordplay, hiring of call girls for his colleagues, and мат; he shows a more learned side toward the end of the book), not to mention unsavory and politically (often very) incorrect, Earth clearly has purpose. The philosophical conversations may run on too long for my taste and literary biases, but they’re juxtaposed nicely with humor, pop culture references, and plot turns, again making a fine high/low combination. And where else have I ever read of a character finding a shovel (“Masha”) that’s essentially a soulmate? Or an almost wistful description of a funeral hall after the funeral, with its red carpet runner, roses, wreathes, and a screen still showing the deceased’s face? There’s still a complex, telltale smell in the air that Volodya decides to call “трупный” (“cadaverous,” I suppose, though some elements are only circumstantially related to the corpse’s presence). There are lots of other lovely lines and scene setters. And then there are all my beloved carnival elements, things I’ve internalized so much over the years that I take them for granted. Watch out or I’ll start listing things from Bakhtin again… carnivalistic mésalliances, anyone? It’s all here.

Earth is big, entertaining, and educational, not to mention confounding in ways that make this post one of my biggest flails in ages. But now that I’m nearly finished, I’ll tell you a big reason why I’m flailing and don’t how Earth all piles up. Astvatsaturov says it’s only part of the story. Meaning that there is more to come. A sequel.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Earth from BGS, Elizarov’s literary agency; I often collaborate with BGS. Thank you!

Up Next: English-language reading! Dmitry Zakharov’s Средняя Эдда (Middle Edda, I guess?)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

NOS(E) Award Winners

Last week, NOS(E) Award jurors debated finalists (shortlist post) and announced three winners. The main jury prize went to Alexander Stesin for his Нью-йоркский обход (New York Rounds), about a doctor working with diverse patients in New York and New Delhi. Readers’ chose Alexei Polyarinov’s Центр тяжести (Center of Gravity); the novel concerns a journalist, a hacker, and an artist. Finally, Linor Goralik won the critics’ award for her Все, способные дышать дыхание (All/Everybody Capable of Breathing a Breath), a mysterious book, both formally and thematically, that also made the Big Book shortlist but (alas, also “mysteriously”) just didn’t grab me.

Up Next: Two books in English (really!) and Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth).

Disclaimers: The usual. As a Big Book juror, I received an electronic copy of the Goralik book.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Another Angry Young Man: Khanov’s Rage

True to its title, Bulat Khanov’s Гнев (which could be Rage or Fury or Anger in English, take your wrathsome pick!) is anything but cheerful: this short novel is about an angry young academic who’s a specialist on the Russian avantgarde, a not-so-pleasant husband, and, well, a real jerk for much (maybe most?) of the book. Then again, though Gleb (holy martyrdom!) Veretinsky (yes, often mispronounced as “Vertinsky) may be an ass with a lot of “issues,” I can’t help but agree with him on certain things. Like irritating diminutives, which “recode” reality (“коньячок,” a diminutive of “cognac” gets his goat even more than it gets mine), or telling off his in-laws after they dis the meal his wife, Lida, made for her own birthday dinner. True, she’s made “navy macaroni” with a very non-traditional teriyaki sauce, but it is her birthday.

Lida, by the way, tells Gleb early in the book that he needs treatment (“лечиться надо”) and that he should be put in a cage, isolated. She tells him this after asking him to stop calling her “woman,” which isn’t a very polite form of direct address in Russian. Gleb says she’s gotten to him (“достала”) and then tells her to knock it off with her childishness, though, as I noted in the back of my book, Lida seems to want Gleb to parent her; but, then again, one of the book’s main plot threads involves her desire to become a parent. Getting there isn’t particularly pretty for several reasons and, anyway, Gleb seems to, let’s say, prefer more solitary pleasures.

Their real problem – you can probably already see patterns emerging here – is, to borrow from Valeria Pustovaya’s detailed “Счастливый хейтер” (which I have to call “The Happy Hater”) afterword, that Lida’s skirmish with Gleb shows (her) instinct butting heads with (his) “слово,” which can mean word, speech, and even, broadened, literature. Pustovaya is, of course, right: Gleb lives mostly within his own head but Lida’s all about flesh and blood, particularly since her job entails processing sales of food, the stuff that fuels and builds the body. No wonder they have such a love-hate relationship! This mind/body division is layered throughout Rage since Gleb tends to do well with thinking but not so well with getting along in real life. Speaking of which, social media come into play, too. As do, given Gleb’s specialty, Apollo and Dionysius.

I’ve cherrypicked and emphasized this layer of Rage for the sake of brevity. Khanov’s melding of an academic novel with dysfunctional relationships, Internet-inspired alienation, and a stark portrait of a generation (millennial) with Lida and Gleb as its representatives makes Rage a thoroughly unpleasant book on some levels. But it’s the sort of thoroughly unpleasant book that I tend to lap up, even if the flavor leans toward bitter or sour. Khanov sweetens everyday existential horror (like gift-giving, ouch!) with humor (see the afore-mentioned macaroni), Gleb’s occasional tenderness for Lida, and (oops, nearly forgot this!) satire. I may never have been an academic or cashier in Kazan, like Gleb and Lida, but many of the observations on human nature feel wretchedly familiar.

Given Gleb’s specialty, of course there’s plenty of discussion of the arts, too, particularly literature, but Khanov never allows anyone to natter on too long. And therein, dear readers, lies one of the reasons I took substantial pleasure in reading this unpleasant book, which strikes me as another example of what I see as a new, slightly cheerier and far more, hm, obviously fictional-feeling wave of chernukha, that realism I love even though it feels like watching a dark documentary. Rage is punchy and loaded with great material that Khanov smartly divides into relatively short chapters that lend themselves to well-placed and -paced pauses for digestion (I’m thinking like both Lida and Gleb here). Khanov sets the book over three months in 2017 and even if I’m still not quite sure what I read – I have unresolved and contradictory thoughts and feelings about Lida, Gleb, and their messages so feel the need to reread for more clarity – this short novel still won’t quite leave me alone, whether I think of it as Rage, Fury, or Anger. As a bonus, Khanov’s many wise formal decisions in Rage make me particularly interested in reading more of his work.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Two books in English. Mikhail Elizarov’s long, long Земля (Earth). NOS(E) Award winners.