Sunday, January 31, 2016

NOS(E) Winners for 2015/2016

The NOS(E) Award announced winners last week: the jury prize went to Danila Zaitsev’s Повесть и житие Данилы Терентьевича Зайцева (The Life and Tale of Danila Terentyevich Zaitsev), which I described like this in previous posts: “In which a Russian Old Believer born in China and living in Argentina tells his story. A Yasnaya Polyana Award finalist and Booker longlister.” The text of the first two (of seven) handwritten notebooks that make up the book—it’s 712 pages (long) in the printed version—is available on Журнальный зал: part 1 and part 2. Based on what I’ve heard and read about the book, the language may be the most interesting part: the manuscript was prepared for publication by Olga Rovnova, a linguist who researches the language of Old Believers in South America.

This year’s readers’ choice award went to Ekaterina Margolis for Следы на воде (perhaps Ripples in the Water? or maybe the wake behind a boat or, say, a gondola?). In an earlier post, I called it “an autobiographical book with Venice. And Moscow. And the ‘river of human lives,’ as the book’s description says. (excerpt).” Perhaps most interesting about this win is that Margolis’s book was on the NOS(E) longlist but didn’t make the shortlist. Hmm.

Up Next: Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Abracadabra, Anyone?: Nosov’s Curly Brackets

I guess the best brief summary of my feelings about Sergei Nosov’s Фигурные скобки (Curly Brackets) would be something like “an enjoyable disappointment.” Enjoyable because I enjoy Nosov’s humor and am a sucker for some good existential, metaphysical comedy set at a conference in wintry St. Petersburg. But a disappointment because Curly Brackets felt a little flawed, structurally speaking. I don’t begrudge Nosov the National Bestseller prize he received last year: as I mentioned back when the NatsBest was awarded, he’s been a finalist for several prizes over the years, so the NatsBest feels more like an award for a successful decade than recognition for just one book.

And so. Curly Brackets concerns a mathematician, Kapitonov, who travels to St. Petersburg for a magician conference. These aren’t just any magicians, though, they’re micromagicians, people who do close-up magic (there’s a bit in English on Wikipedia) rather than events on large stages. Beyond that, our Kapitonov is mentalist, someone who figures out (literally) what two-digit numeral a person is thinking of. The conference attracts quite a group of characters, including The Architect of Events, The Devourer of Time, and Mister Necromancer. Nosov certainly did this reader a favor by making sure Kapitonov was as clueless about his colleagues as I: that gave Nosov a nice chance to explain micromagic in ways that feel organic to the book’s plot.

And then there’s the conference swag, which includes a little suitcase with a magic wand—the wand’s even labeled, probably because it’s just a run-of-the-mill chopstick, which makes it doubly magical, I suppose—and a copy of a book that surely must be Тайная жизнь петербургских памятников (The Secret Lives of Petersburg Monuments). None other than Sergei Nosov wrote a book with that title; Nosov loves slipping something meta into his novels. Beyond that, there are conference details, formal meetings and sessions, awkward conversations among people who don’t know each other, and Vodoemov, the somewhat mysterious and nefarious organizer who invited Kapitonov and tries to push him into a leadership position. What makes this conference unlike most others—beyond micromagicians showing off—is that there’s also a death that involves mentalism. Can comments from a necromancer be far behind?!

What didn’t work for me in Curly Brackets (and, yes, I’m oversimplifying here) is the chunk of the book from which the title is taken: while in Petersburg, Kapitonov visits with a friend, who gives him her deceased husband’s journal to read. He claims to have been taken over by an outside force and made into someone other than himself. He’s found a peculiar loophole, though: whatever he writes in triple curly brackets remains secret from that force. The journal has some moderately interesting moments—and feels like it had potential to become its own book—but, within the context of Curly Brackets, the novel, I found it utterly and immediately forgettable. I wanted to get back to the conference, its quirky little details, and its characters, all of which felt far more intriguing and more entertaining, thanks to Nosov’s ability to create a form of absurdity that’s simultaneously believable and fantastical, funny and tragic, and, somehow, very Petersburg, too. I suppose those contradictions that aren’t contradictions make my “enjoyable disappointment” feel all the more fitting.

Up Next: NOS(E) Award winners. Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom, which is already making me hungry to search up recipes for traditional Dagestani foods…

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Reading Sails on with Buida’s Ceylon

I might not call Yuri Buida’s Цейлон (Ceylon) the author’s headiest or most metaphysical novel—I definitely prefer both his Blue Blood and Zero Train—but Ceylon, like Poison and Honey, his previous book, is thoroughly readable and enjoyable. Lots of Ceylon felt familiar after reading several other Buida novels: part of my enjoyment, I suspect, came from just that because I love observing how authors reuse structures and tropes in various books. That familiarity may also help explain why I think Ceylon feels more accessible and mainstream (these aren’t bad words!) to me than, say, his Blue Blood or Zero Train, though I suspect—it’s been too long since I read those books to feel safe saying “I think”—Ceylon is less densely packed than those books, making it easier to read.

As with Blue Blood and Poison and Honey, a family home feels like a key character in Ceylon: in this case, as in Poison, there’s a house on a hill. The area it’s in is known as “Ceylon,” which reminds of how a building in Blue Blood is known as “Africa.” Both those names are introduced early in their respective novels, leading to questions about the origins of the building names. In the case of Ceylon, named thusly by a traveler in the eighteenth century enamored of the island, there were early attempts to dress up dogs as tigers, boys as monkeys, and wooden structures as palm trees. Not quite a tropical paradise but an attempt at paradise nevertheless and (long story short, since of course there’s much more to things) the place, though not the original house, which burned, is now home to the Cherepin family, five generations of which are described in varying levels of detail in the book by Andrei Ilyich Cherepin, a first-person narrator who’s genial and, though heavily involved in events, feels surprisingly reliable.

As one might guess, the words “magical realism” are often used in conjunction with the name “Yuri Buida” and elements like the odd family house and a character named Stoletov (hmm, sto=hundred and let=years) flashed little “subtext?!” lights even for me, one of those rare literary losers who couldn’t quite bring herself to finish One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Aside: I don’t know why. All I can say is that I approached it with dread. But will try again. Some year.) Ceylon, though, feels almost more like some form of “absurd realism” or at least “quirky realism” to me, what with brothers on opposite sides at revolution time—this, by the way, feels like another case of attempts at paradise, of which there are many in Ceylon and Ceylon, including through marriage—and a taxidermied bear and unlikely loves and a woman dancing the lambada at the grave of her son, who died in Chechnya. There’s lots of everyday oddity. And I nearly forgot the big elm tree growing through the house. A sort of family tree.

There’s a lot of history, too: Andrei’s first job is at a dig, where he charms all the young women, he goes on to be a teacher, work at the local museum, and write his dissertation about local history that includes his family. Digs and cultural layers come up a lot in contemporary Russian fiction and Buida piles together Russian history, local history, and family history for the reader to dig through, working in the two brothers’ conflicts about the revolution—I mention this again because I thought it’s one of the strongest and best-integrated subplots in the book, with its combination of “big” history and family history—the military-industrial complex, whose secrets another family member keeps; the crime-ridden banditry of the nineties; the wars in Chechnya; and even the conflict in Ukraine. Some of these chunks of history are more successful than others, I think: as often happens in fiction, particularly family sagas that draw on and reflect a country’s history, more distant events usually feel better contextualized and grounded than those more recent.

In the end, though, the town cemetery, known as Red Mountain, felt almost more significant to me than Ceylon, both because Andrei speaks, early on, of his youthful hope for immortality and because his grandfather has taken on a gigantic cemetery renovation project (financed in a way that doesn’t sound perfectly legal) that dovetails nicely with Andrei’s thoughts about the afterlife at the end of the book, when he’s the father of three (almost four) children and has described rather dramatic losses of family members. There’s a lot of mortality in Ceylon but also lots of birth.

I’d have to make a long, Buidaesque list to cover all the other important elements of the book that I haven’t mentioned here: I’d certainly include characters, romances, and family rivalries. I’ll skip the list, though, and say that Ceylon may be a little lumpy in its treatment of various generations, and their characters and situations don’t feel as evenly developed as they might, but, to repeat, I enjoyed the book, and I think one reason is because I thoroughly appreciate Buida’s ability to incorporate discussion of history into dialogue without getting bogged down. There are conversations about how Russians carry on when the world’s falling apart, about justifying Stalinism, about crazy “what ifs” when people have wild ideas, and plenty more. And damn if it doesn’t feel pretty balanced and disciplined—by which I mean contextualized, natural (!), and brief—without giving short shrift to the big questions at hand, many of which are already pretty familiar even to me, a non-Russian reader.

Up next: I still have Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets waiting to be written about. And then there will be whatever I start tonight… most likely Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom, though the groom comes first in the Russian title.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. I received an electronic copy of Ceylon from Elkost, Buida’s literary agency, for which I say thank you. But I bought a printed copy to read after reading the very beginning of the electronic file.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year! & 2015 Highlights

It’s a mystery to me how 2015 managed to slip by so quickly, but here I am, yet again, with holiday greetings. Happy new year! С Новым годом! For at least the third year in a row, the reading situation has been quality over quantity with lots of abandonments but also a fair number of books I’ve enjoyed. It’s been another busy year of translation, too. Here are a few highlights in categories that I’ve (as always!) fashioned to fit what I enjoyed most:

Favorite debut novel. Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (previous post) was one of my favorite books of the year and, as I’ve noted before, my enjoyment of the book only grew when I translated excerpts for Elkost, Yakhina’s literary agency. I still don’t quite understand how Yakhina makes a book about the exile of a kulak woman into such a lovely, affecting novel, but I’m going to just chalk that up to the magic of fiction. As I’ve said before, Zuleikha certainly deserves the praise and awards—the Yasnaya Polyana and Big Book—that it has won. It was a pleasure to rank Zuleikha highest on my Big Book ballot in my first year as a voting jury member.

Favorite book by a writer I’d already read. Marina Stepnova’s Italian Lessons (Безбожный переулок in Russian) (previous post), which I’m happy to say I’ll start translating in March for World Editions, publisher of my translation of Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus, released this September. (You can read about Stepnova and The Women of Lazarus here, in a comprehensive piece by Phoebe Taplin.) Anyway! Italian Lessons tells of a love triangle but is, more than anything, put broadly, hmm (particularly since I might change my mind after translating), a novel about the difficulties of contemporary Russian life. With background, food, travel, and lots of literary references I can’t wait to sort through.

Favorite children’s book. I don’t read many children’s books but I did read two this year… and I enjoyed Anna Starobinets’s Catlantis (previous post) so much that I had to mention it, particularly since Pushkin Press recently published Jane Bugaeva’s English translation. I read the Russian but—knowing Jane, her love for cats, and her love for linguistic fun—I’m certain the translation is just as much fun as the original. If you’re looking for a chapter book about a love-struck, time-traveling cat, search no further than Catlantis!

Favorite book I haven’t finished. Valerii Zalotukha’s The Candle (Свечка), my second-place Big Book book. Weighing in at about 1,850 pages, I admit I still haven’t finished the book, though with its combination of the Moscow nineties, references to War and Peace, and themes of criminal activity and sociocultural wreckage, I might love to be stuck in The Candle for years. I’ve read at least one novel’s worth already, in binges and in small bits, and love how easy it is to enjoy The Candle however I read. A post will be coming whenever.

Signing books at The Strand!
Favorite travel. This is tough because I always enjoy the American Literary Translators Association annual conference… but I think Russian Literature Week, which brought me to New York earlier this month, had that beat. Not only did I love being part of a Bridge Series event with Eugene Vodolazkin, about Лавр/Laurus, at BookCourt in Brooklyn, and moderated by Sal Robinson, but it was fun moderating a roundtable at the Brooklyn Public Library with Vodolazkin, Vladimir Sharov, and Dmitry Petrov, too. Of course it was great to just have a chance to spend time in balmy New York (60 degrees F!) with them, Leonid Yuzefovich, translators Marian Schwartz and Oliver Ready, and many, many other translators, writers, readers, publishers, and other colleagues from New York, Moscow, and beyond. My memories of the week are so horribly skewed from being a part of two events—even when I attended events I wasn’t involved in, I was thinking about how anything Sharov and Vodolazkin said might apply to our roundtable—that I’m thoroughly incapable of writing a trip report, so I’ll just say here that it was all great fun. And that sitting under a warm December sun in the middle of Broadway or walking around Central Park talking about Russian books is pretty nice.

Happiest mood. What seems to stick most about 2015 is how good the year was to me and my books. Three of my translations were released—Vladislav Otroshenko’s Addendum to a Photo Album, Stepnova’s Women of Lazarus, and Vodolazkin’s Laurus—and all have had nice reviews on reader blogs, in publications like The TLS, and even in the wonderfully hybrid New Yorker Page-Turner blog, where Ken Kalfus’s “Holy Foolery,” about Laurus, helped the book find many, many readers. And that, I have to say, is one of the reasons I love this translation thing so much to begin with: beyond the fun of translation itself and the very humbling honor of becoming a writer’s English-language voice, I love being able to help books reach new readers. And that, I think is the perfect place to end 2015, though only blog-wise since there is still a little food, wine, and reading to go. And I do want to say how much I’m looking forward to next year’s books, too: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina and Vodolazin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which, like Laurus, will be published by Oneworld Publications.

More finally: another thank you! Thank you for visiting the blog, whether you come by regularly or occasionally. I hope you continue to enjoy it and I wish you a very happy, healthy, and book-filled 2016!

Up Next: Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, Yurii Buida’s Ceylon, and who knows what else… there are shelves and shelves of books hanging around, waiting to be read!

Disclaimers: The usual.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia. Book signing, publicist Becky Kraemer.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Getting Off the Island: Vagner’s Truly Human

Sequels are always tough so I have to admit I began Yana Vagner’s Живые люди—which her agents call Truly Human, rather than the more literal and far more awkward Living People—with a bit of trepidation. I loved Vagner’s Vongozero (previous post) for its road journey: a group of people leaves Moscow for a remote island near the Russian-Finnish border, to escape a killer virus. There’s lots of snow. Most of the genres I mentioned before—psychological thriller, race for survival, and horror story—are still in force for Truly Human, but road story is replaced by a version of hermetic fiction this time. Hermetic seals are, of course, always just waiting to burst…

There’s snow on the island in Truly Human, too, since it’s still winter: Truly Human tells what happens when the road trip ends and the motley group of people settles in. The narrator is again Anya, a thirty-something woman who’s married to Sergei and is mother to teenage Misha. She’s crammed into a tiny house with her overbearing father-in-law, three neighbors from her old life (they’re still annoying), Sergei’s ex-wife and their child, and one other couple. There’s also a dog. Once again, Vagner’s writing is plain and very appropriate to her book’s events. This time she depicts a Spartan lifestyle: not only do the cigarettes run out but there’s lots of ice fishing, sleeping on uncomfortable-sounding beds, and sharing small spaces with people Anya doesn’t like very much.

I think that’s what I enjoyed most about Truly Human: Anya’s honesty about her companions. Some of them are shadowy here, barely described, reflecting their places in her consciousness. Or lack thereof: sometimes it feels like she simply wants to will them out of existence. With its island setting, Truly Human begins as a pretty hermetically sealed book but Vagner works in three new neighbors on the shore; one of them seems especially threatening, which starts building some slow suspense. It’s worth noting that the Chekhovian guns present in Vongozero haven’t exactly been thrown in the lake. Nor have most of the other post-cataclysmic, existential threats one might expect, like hunger, boredom, thin ice, and illness. Vagner covers most of that, too, again starting off slowly but quickening her pace.

Although there’s a distinct sense here of hell being other people (that’s one side of being “truly human” and “living people,” isn’t it?) Vagner also shows the women drinking by a campfire (there’s a nice mess of trout that day) and telling stories about their lives before the virus. And later, when the first of the group dies, everyone mourns not only that person but their other loved ones: to paraphrase, nobody had time to mourn the sharp feelings of loss they’d brought with them to the island. Anya may not always be a sympathetic character or narrator but she’s insightful and very, very real. And human, too, as emotions and plotlines heat up when all sorts of calamities hit. And how could they not? The food’s bound to run out, spring and migrating ducks come late to northern Russia, and the three guys on shore always looked a little sketchy. Even if I didn’t love Truly Human quite as much as Vongozero—which I’d expected after finding Vongozero so oddly magical—I have to admire Vagner’s ability to put her characters in a small house without much food, space, or privacy. And to let them sort things out in ways that felt, well, pretty truly human to me.

Up Next: Year-end summary, Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, and likely Yuri Buida’s Ceylon, which I started yesterday and which feels a little like comfortable old (but not smelly) slippers.