Sunday, September 16, 2018

Moscow Trip Report 1: Award News, Head Cold Edition

My recent week in Moscow was so filled with literary events that I’m going to split my trip report into two posts. Beyond all the material, I brought home a head cold along with a gigundo pile of books, so a slightly embellished list is about all I can handle today.

First off, Read Russia Award winners for what I think of as the global prize, for translation into all languages:

Marta Sánchez-Nieves won the nineteenth-century category for her Spanish-language translation of Lev Tolstoy’s Cевастопольские Рассказы (Sevastopol Stories), published by Alba. Anne Coldefy-Faucard won the twentieth-century award for her decades of work, in collaboration with Geneviève Johannet, on the French translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Красное колесо (The Red Wheel) for Fayard. Oliver Ready won the contemporary prize for his English translation of Vladimir Sharov’s Репетиции (The Rehearsals) for Dedalus Books. Finally, Kiril Kadiiski took the poetry nomination for his translation into Bulgarian of a collection of poems by Fyodor Tyutchev for Nov Zlatorog. Hearty congratulations to all!

A few award notes… The only other English-language finalist for awards this year was Boris Dralyuk’s translation of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories for Pushkin Press. Anne Coldefy-Faucard was also shortlisted in the contemporary literature category for her translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria. Another translation of Vladimir Sharov’s work was shortlisted: Ljubinka Milincic was recognized for her Serbian translation of Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). The success of translations of Sharov’s work felt horribly bittersweet given his recent death. I felt his passing constantly: in Oliver’s acceptance speech, in discussions with friends who said many couldn’t fathom it (I fit that category), and in the portrait hanging at a bookstore. Most of all, though, I missed seeing him, if only for a brief chat.

On a more cheerful note, it was fun going to the announcement of this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award finalists. Perhaps most interesting is that there are only three finalists from a long list (it did look pretty weak) of forty-three:
  • Aleksandr Bushkovsky for his Праздник лишних орлов (The Festival of Superfluous Eagles is how Yasnaya Polyana translated the title and, well, I’m just going to roll with that given that I haven’t read the book), a collection of stories about friends who fought together in Chechnya but can’t figure out what to do with themselves upon returning home. I’ve seen the Russian word for “eagles” used for distinguished soldiers and since these guys feel lost, “superfluous” feels like it refers back to the superfluous man. 
  • Olga Slavnikova for her Прыжок в длину (Long Jump), a book I find rather heavy with metaphors. Even so, I can understand Vladislav Otroshenko’s enthusiasm for the book given its real plot (the novel does just keep plugging along) and view of the world. I’ve read more than half and plan to finish it for my Big Book reading. Long Jump won the Book of the Year award while I was in Moscow, too.
  • Maria Stepanova for Памяти памяти (I’ll go for In Memory of Memory since I haven’t read it yet), which is on the way in English, too. Like the Slavnikova book, In Memory of Memory is also a Big Book finalist.
For a bit of commentary on the list, visit the Yasnaya Polyana site, here.

And then there’s this, just for fun: a list of hundred of the most important Russian books in the last thirty years. It’s fitting since the second book is Sharov’s The Rehearsals. There are some interesting entries!

Disclaimers: The usual. My head is addled.

Up Next: The rest of the trip report, English-language reading roundup, and Big Book finalists.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Farewell to Vladimir Sharov

I’m very sad to write that Vladimir Sharov died last Friday at the age of sixty-six. Sharov was the author of such novels as Репетиции (The Rehearsals), До и во время (Before and During), both translated into English by Oliver Ready, and Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt), for which he won the Russian Booker Prize in 2014.


I didn’t know Sharov well but I’ve enjoyed talking with him at literary and translation events in Moscow and New York. Beyond speaking eloquently about his books, he was warm, quietly funny, and almost otherworldly. Those qualities – plus an on-the-page version of the twinkle in his eye – somehow come through in his writing, too, bringing a human touch to fiction that can be very dense, often with little dialogue. Sharov was also gracious and generous, giving me an extra copy of a thick collection of Platonov’s letters when I told him I’d translated a Platonov story.

I’ll be writing more about Sharov and his Rehearsals this fall. I’ve heard much (very lavish) praise for The Rehearsals among Russian friends who read a lot of contemporary fiction but I think I’m failing the book because my memories from Russian history courses are now so hazy and my religious background has always been worse than slipshod. Despite not making those big picture connections, I love the theatricality in The Rehearsals, the plot possibilities of a Second Coming are appealing, I sense Sharov’s twinkling eye in the humor, and Oliver’s translation both reads very well and compares beautifully with the Russian book, which Sharov was kind enough to give to me after we participated in a roundtable discussion at the Brooklyn Public Library. That’s a fair bit but my gaping knowledge gaps mean I can’t appreciate the book properly, particularly given the fact that I feel like I’m still (very, very slowly) finding my way around Sharov’s world, a place that’s wildly different from what I find in most of the books I read. Finding my way around that world feels all the more important to me now, so I’m looking at some remedial reading as a way to continue learning from Sharov. I’m grateful to him for our conversations and will very much miss seeing him when I visit Moscow next month.

Disclaimers: The usual. Thank you to Dedalus Books for a review copy of The Rehearsals. The Dedalus page about the book includes lengthy excerpts from reviews; the reviews by Michael Orthofer and Jamie Rann very aptly get at the novel’s rewards.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Cats Are Not People, Too: Sluzhitel’s Savely’s Days

Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (literally Savely’s Days) came as a bit of a surprise, despite hearing a rave recommendation from Evgeny Vodolazkin months before the book came out. I’m pretty picky about animal books – though I read Charlotte’s Web a million times as a child and loved Anna Starobinets’s Catlantis a few years ago – but Sluzhitel’s novel, narrated by a male cat named Savely (diminutive Savva), who was likely named for a brand of tvorog, is so affecting and charming (a word I rarely use) that it made me smile, laugh, and even sob. Savva’s story isn’t just a chronicle of a cat’s life, it’s also a love letter to Moscow (something I’d felt in my reading and was happy to see Sluzhitel’ confirm in this interview) and a bittersweet story of kinship, friendship, and separations. Sluzhitel’s writing is complemented by atmospheric black-and-white illustrations from Aleksandra Nikolaenko, winner of last year’s Russian Booker Prize.


And so. As the novel’s title indicates, Savva, a very literate and literary cat, tells his life story, beginning with memories from the womb, birth in a Zaporozhets, and early life in a Chiquita banana box. Savva’s childhood is pretty happy, featuring food from benefactors, regular visits to see his aunt (who lives in a front-loading washing machine), and good relationships with his sisters and mother. His upbringing is solid: his mother tells him that cats don’t really have nine lives so there’s no sense in taking chances by walking in front of motorized transportation. Savva loses touch with his family after a well-meaning human takes him in. He’s not particularly happy in his new life despite nice possessions like a laser mouse, scratchers, and rubber balls, not to mention a Sunday ritual of climbing into a tea pot. He ends up bolting on the way to a vet visit (he’s already been neutered), leaving Vitya, a bookish teenager who’s something of an outcast, catless.

I didn’t count the major changes in Savva’s tale but he cycles through quite a few lives in the book (I’ll go lightly to avoid spoilers), serving as a rat catcher at the Tretyakov Gallery and having to co-habit, albeit briefly, with a parrot named Iggy, a situation not fated to end well. My favorite of Savva’s hosts is a young Kirgiz man who rescues Savva after he’s attacked and left badly injured. After Askar is fired from his job at Gorky Park (there’s been smoking…) he finds work as a bicycle deliveryman and brings Savva with him. (They even deliver food to a theater in a scene that seems to include Sluzhitel’ in a cameo appearance.) Beyond additional lovely descriptions of Moscow during that period – the city filled with morning sun, puddles drying after a night downpour, everything looking harmonious and beautiful, a look I love so much – Askar, a migrant living under tenuous conditions with friends who’ve pooled their money for Savva’s care and feeding, was my favorite of the human characters in the novel. That’s partly because of his big heart but I also wonder if I found Askar (and the last pair of people who care for Savva) the most convincing or fitting of the humans in the book because he lives on the margins of contemporary Moscow life, giving him something in common with Savva, who’s a wanderer. Savva wants to see the world (or at least Moscow) and even gives the impression of being something of an existentialist with a phobia for commitment, too. At least, that is, until he meets a beautiful young cat, in some of the book’s nicest passages.

I could go on and on about favorite passages – why Savva’s fired from the Tretyakov, psychedelic experiments with valerian tooth drops, or his life in a doghouse with his love and a dog – but will sum up by agreeing with Vodolazkin’s assessment, in his introduction to Savely’s Days, that Sluzhitel’ draws on his acting skills and becomes a full-fledged cat in the novel. Of course that’s all too easy for me to say because a) I’ve never been a cat and b) my own two cats don’t seem to write. (They do read and translate with me, though, so perhaps they’re holding out on us?) Sluzhitel’ is so good at writing about a cat’s life that, though I enjoyed the entire book, I found Savva’s descriptions of his own life more convincing than his passages about his humans’ backstories. The humans’ stories felt like slivers of a portrait of Moscow in the twenty-first century, but they only really came alive for me when Savva was interacting with his people in some way, by climbing into the teapot, observing Vitya’s grandmother, or making sushi deliveries. Or sitting inside someone’s coat on a park bench during a time of mourning.

Edwina translating Vodolazkin’s Aviator.
Somehow (don’t ask me how since I’m not sure I understand it myself) this doesn’t just feel like a matter of Shklovsky’s остранение (ostranenie, defamiliarization), something else Vodolazkin mentions in his introduction. It feels to me as if Sluzhitel’ isn’t just showing the world from a novel (sorry) perspective. He’s an actor who’s an author (and an author who’s an actor) and channels his inner catness to thoroughly inhabit a character who’s not even of his own species. In doing so, he manages to find an internal logic for his text that makes the feline perspective feel perfectly natural, as if it’s not just a literary device. Savva may be a cat but he can tell a story – an exceedingly rare quality these days – at least as well as he can chase his tail. Maybe I’m too willing to suspend my disbelief and/or maybe I’m too close to cats to be objective, but what makes Savva such a successful figure for me is that, yes, fine, he’s able to read, to understand human dialogue, and to write, but he’s a cat. And he wants to be a cat, to chase his tail, to try valerian, and not to answer to humans. Or to become a human. Just like my two officemates, who often lie on my desk and make themselves available for patting when I’m working on difficult passages (it helps!) but leave the room as soon as I start reading out loud, though perhaps that’s because they can’t relate to my books since I have yet to translate a book narrated by a cat.

Disclaimers: A friend provided me with an electronic copy of Savely’s Days; I’m going to buy a print copy in Moscow next month. I’ve also corresponded a bit with Grigory Sluzhitel’.

Up next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov. I’m also working on my Big Book reading, with Alexander Arkhangelsky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau), which has finally taken a dramatic turn.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Farewell to Vladimir Voinovich

I was very sad to learn on Friday evening that Vladimir Voinovich had died. I haven’t read Voinovich in nearly a decade but I’ve enjoyed his books since the 1980s, first in translation—I believe Richard Lourie’s Moscow 2042 translation was the first Voinovich book I read—and then in Russian, where I think I first read Хочу быть честным (“I Want to Be Honest”), which is also one of the first medium-sized works of Russian literature I read for fun. I read Voinovich most recently in 2009, when I thoroughly enjoyed his Шапка (The Fur Hat) (previous post).

My early reading of Voinovich is certainly one reason I feel a certain sentimental attachment to his writing—his satire was biting and being able to enjoy it felt like a gift—though I’m sure that hearing him read at a very small Moscow gathering in the 1990s helped, too. I didn’t know him or even speak with him that evening but, as often happens after author readings, I felt closer to his work because I heard his voice and saw his mannerisms and reactions. Northwestern University Press’s description of Richard Lourie’s Pretender to the Throne translation sums up, in five words, what I’ve always so appreciated about Voinovich: “dissident conscience and universal humor.”

Voinovich’s death feels very much like the end of an era, though that’s not just because he was 85 and so few writers of his generation are still with us. I’m also afraid that younger readers aren’t as familiar with his books (and books by other Soviet-era dissidents, too) as they might be. I remember lending Chonkin books to two twenty-something Russians during the 2000s: neither had heard of Voinovich but both thoroughly enjoyed the reading. I hope Voinovich continues to be read. I also wish there were an afterlife with a special pneumatic tube for sending us work by departed writers. I can only imagine that Voinovich’s accounts of heaven/hell/limbo would be a lot of fun to read.

Other previous posts about Voinovich:

Up next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov. And Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия, literally Savely’s Days, narrated by a Moscow cat. I’m also working on my Big Book reading, with Alexander Arkhangelsky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau).

Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Who Are You?": Novellas from Vladimir Makanin and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina

I’ve always loved medium-length fiction—long stories, novellas, and short novels, though I may be too loose with the labels—and hold a special affection for Russian books containing works of fiction of varying lengths. I read novellas from two such collections this summer and was interested to find some basic plot and thematic similarities—man leaves city of residence, ends up in other place, has relationship(s) with woman, numerous questions about society and identity arise—that pushed me to write about the two novellas in one post. They are Vladimir Makanin’s На первом дыхании (At First Breath) and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina’s Развилка (The Fork in the Road).


At First Breath has been adapted for film and the main contours of the plot summary on Wikipedia are just close enough to the novella that I won’t bother rehashing beyond saying that a man, Oleg, returns to Moscow to win back his beloved, who’s now married another man. Book-Oleg, however, isn’t really wanted anywhere so he spends his nights all over the place, including at Kursk train station, a favorite spot in Venedikt Yerofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line, in H. William Tjalsma’s translation), plus, I hasten to add, Oleg not only rents out his relatives’ apartment to gypsies, he sells their possessions, too.

At First Breath’s plot feels relatively familiar, quite probably because I’ve read a fair number of Makanin’s other books, including his (much, much longer) Underground or A Hero of Our Time (previous post), in which another first-person narrator wanders from place to place raising questions about identity and society. Oleg wonders as he wanders, too, since he’s in a world where he feels nobody needs him, some amorphous “they” is/are always to blame, and he tells Galya, his beloved, that he’s going to save the world. Her response is, “Знаю. Знаю.” (“I know. I know.”) In a paragraph I labeled “love,” Oleg says he knows nothing about tacky/banal luxury (that being “пошлая роскошь”) but is accustomed to finding freedom in the steppes, a sense of Time on trains, and at least a bathroom in Moscow. What, really, does a person need? That’s what I almost always seem to love about Makanin’s earlier works: a sense of wondering, wandering, tragedy, and comedy about an individual that rises to something larger, something more universal. At First Breath feels like it might have even been a sketch of sorts for Underground; I checked Wikipedia and found that they came out 1995 and 1998, respectively.

Alexandrova-Zorina’s more recent Fork in the Road offers up a reverse scenario: Bagramov, a Muscovite, is driving to a distant town on business and gets stuck, literally, psychologically, and metaphysically, in a blizzard, and the last sign he sees says “Яма” (“Pit”), something he sees as a bad omen. Indeed! He ends up in the pits. This novella reads like the result of Vladimir Propp’s work morphing into Fairy Tale Transformations for Failure, where there’s never any chance of anything resembling a happy ending.

Nothing goes well for Bagramov. Our anti-hero loves telling the hapless people around him that he’s got plenty of money to get himself out of the mess he’s driven into but nobody knows their location (!) so when he calls Moscow he doesn’t know where to ask the operator to send help. His housing with Vasilisa (this is a very marked name but she’s not a beautiful fairytale princess) is infested with mice (there are some grisly scenes), another woman in town claims her husband is in Moscow but he’s dead, and there are even (OMG) shades of the Log Lady. Fork in the Road is filled with the familiar tropes of drinking, the decay of infrastructure, and societal breakdown, and Bagramov is thwarted, even violently, each time he attempts to climb out of the pit. The ending, with a sort of search party, is pretty predictable but it fits the novella perfectly by allowing an additional and literal examination of identity—questions of “who are you/am I?” have been sounding since the beginning—as well as reinforcements of opposites like city/rural, rich/poor, and cultured/uncultured. This is dark, sad stuff but several things differentiate Fork in the Road from the чернуха (dark realism) that was so (un?)popular five or ten years ago: a peculiar sense of suspense (I initially rooted for Bagramov to get the hell out of town even if he had to walk, though I knew the story wouldn’t go anywhere if he did), the feeling of a dark fairytale or at least a morality story, and a fitting absurdity that arises from those first two factors. Maybe ignorance really is bliss? I don’t know how many times I said “this is so strange” as I read Fork in the Road, and that’s a “strange” that covers a lot of meanings and emotions.

Disclaimers: The usual. I once translated a story by Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina for Чтение.

Up next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m still waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov. And Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия, literally Savely’s Days, a novel about a cat that feels especially lovely after these novellas and Lullaby. After Savely, I’ll need to pounce (finally!) on my Big Book reading.