Thursday, November 12, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Erofeev and Esenin

I’ve been struggling over the small pool of letter “E” writers for a some time, hoping more contenders for favorites would emerge from some foggy compartment of my reading memory. Увы, alas, nothing, though there are some worthy writers:

Though Venedikt Erofeev may not be as big a favorite as some of my picks for previous letters, his Москва-Петушки (Moskva-Petushki or Moscow to the End of the Line) is a Soviet-era underground classic that has cult followings in and outside Russia. I wrote a bit about this short novel in a past post. What can I say? It’s a book about life and drinking (or drinking and life?), and its motifs live on. I felt them particularly strongly when I read Vladimir Makanin’s Андеграунд, или герой нашего времени (Underground or A Hero of Our Time) (previous post), plus several theaters have adapted the novella for stage.

On the lyrical side, I’ve always had a fascination with Sergei Esenin’s poetry. I guess I probably identify with his combination of rural and urban themes. And his physical and emotional wanderings. Esenin died in 1925 but he retains a place in Russian cultural life: Russian TV ran a miniseries about him in 2005, singer Aleksandr Novikov has made several albums of songs based on his poetry, and there is a Esenin Café in Moscow. Then there is this: last month’s online auction of items related to Esenin’s last days. The lot contained the rope with which he hanged himself, a lock of hair that his mother cut off his body, and a portrait of Esenin in his coffin. The items evidently sold for a little over two million rubles, but part of me wishes this story were not true because if feels so ghoulish.

The E-List for Future Reading: I’ve long felt a little guilty for not reading Venedikt Erofeev’s play Вальпургиева ночь (Walpurgis Night). Then there is Viktor Erofeev’s Русская красавица (Russian Beauty), which has also stood unread on my shelf since the early ‘90s. I just never seem to get to it. I’m sure I’ll read more from Mikhail Elizarov after enjoying his Библиотекарь (The Librarian) (previous post) this past summer -- several story collections are available but I’m hoping for another novel.

Please let me know who I’ve have missed!


  1. Aside from Fedor Emin, purely of historical interest but fun to know about, the only missing E who leaps to mind is Evtushenko, who isn't nearly as bad as I snobbishly thought back in college (when I was a partisan of Voznesensky, who isn't nearly as good as I thought).

    I haven't gotten into Esenin yet, but Venedikt Erofeev is one of my favorite modern writers, and I heartily recommend Moskva-Petushki to all and sundry.

  2. Thanks, Languagehat! I thought about including the Э-E writers with these but then decided against it. Though it may be years until I get to the end of the alphabet, my rationale is that maybe I'll get to some Ehrenburg by then!

    I've never been a big fan of Evtushenko, other than his "Бабий Яр" ("Babii Yar"), which I haven't read in a long time.

    I always think of Evtushenko and Voznesenskii together, too... When I lived in Moscow, I used to go the Pasternak dacha each May 30, the anniversary of Pasternak's death (and my birthday). Evtushenko and Voznesenskii usually came to recite poetry, and there was always piano music, too.

  3. I've never been a big fan of Evtushenko

    Oh, I'm not either! I didn't care for "Бабий Яр" (I generally don't care for "civic poetry"), but I discovered I quite liked bits of Брацкая ГЭС when I got a cheap copy at a library sale. Still, he was by no stretch of the imagination a great poet, and I take guilty pleasure in Dovlatov's gibe «Если Евтушенко против колхозов, то я — за».

  4. Another E writer not to be missed: Пётр Ершов, author of "Конёк-Горбунов" and a younger contemporary of Pushkin. Konyok-Gorbunok is as strong a cultural reference as "Золотой петушок" or "Царь Салтан".

    "Москва - Петушки" is in my top 10 Russian books too.

    To Evtushenko-Voznensensky I also add Rozhdestvensky and Akhmadullina. I think Babii Yar and Bratskaya GES had more of a social-political impact, than literary. I rate Voznesensky as poet higher than E.E.

    Evtushenko is also spelled Yevtushenko. So you not only have a problem with Ehrenburg, but with old Evgeny too... Sorry, can't think of how to go about it except double indexing them.

    Another literary E figure to note, but only in your book of bastards, is critic Владимир ЕРМИЛОВ (1904 — 1965), secretary of RAPP and one of the leaders of proletarian literary pogromshiki, known as "напостовцы", from the group "На литературном посту". Amazingly, he was still influential in the 60-s.

  5. Oh, in case you haven't come across this useful resource, index of Russian writers is here:
    FEB-WEB has pages both in Russian and in English. You will see that in English they put both Е and Э together.

  6. To Evtushenko-Voznensensky I also add Rozhdestvensky and Akhmadullina.

    Really? I think of Akhmadulina as a genuine poet, even if no Brodsky.

  7. oh, yes, they were a poetic circle, feeding off the same zeitgeist. It is not about literary merit, I think of cultural, intellectual pools, the 'soups' from which new life forms appear. It was not Pushkin alone who created modern Russian, Vyazemsky probably did more in developing it. And who remembers Delvig now? But they were all part of that creative soup, like EE, Voznesensky and Akhmadulina a century and a half later.

  8. OK, I see what you're saying, and that makes sense. (I like Delvig quite a bit, by the way!)

  9. Thanks, Alexander A., for mentioning feb-web... somehow, I've never run across it or noticed it.

    I, too, think of all those poets together, as part of the шестидесятники "soup," as you put it. And Languagehat is not the only one who remembers Delvig: I read him in grad school!

    Languagehat, I love the Dovlatov quote.

  10. I used to go the Pasternak dacha each May 30
    If you don't know it already, find Arthur Miller's account of his visit to Pasternak's grave, accompanied by Katayev and Evtushenko's wife Galya. Both chilling and funny. It is in Miller/Morath book In Russia, hugely underrated and often refered to as a 'photo-album'. If I had to choose between the 3,000 pages by Figes and the 100 pages by Miller, I'd choose Miller. The book had been banned in the Soviet Union for a long time, and came out too late, towards the end of the 80s.

  11. Thank you for the tip on In Russia, Alexander A! I'm going to order the book through interlibrary loan.

  12. Belated congratulations, Lisa, on your excellent blog!

    E writers... I warmly recommend Oleg Ermakov's novel Znak zverya (1992), which draws, like Ermakov's other early writing, on his army experience in Afghanistan. I read it recently and am still getting to grips with it, but found it very interesting and well-structured. A kind of collective portrait of army life that effectively captures the repetitiveness and fear, but is also varied in tone and style, and avoids shock tactics (not that it should be reduced to the category of 'war prose' - I'm not sure it's really 'about' war or Afghanistan in the end). Plus it's an actual novel, rather than a cycle of stories (like many Russian books of the 90s). Hope it will find a translator one day; right now would be appropriate, of course.

    Back to B's, have you tried Yuri Buida? I translated some of his work a while ago, and he's now publishing his texts in Russian on his site, I like his 'Prussian' stories best (try Rita Schmidt Kto Ugodno, or among the shorter ones, Tri koshki, Veselaya Gertruda, Voinovo), and his novella Don Domino. The novel Ermo is also interesting, especially for Nabokovians.

  13. The novel Ermo is also interesting, especially for Nabokovians.

    That sounds quite interesting; could you expand on it a bit?
    /intrigued Nabokovian

  14. happily... I wrote a piece on Buida for the Literary Encyclopedia (the website), and it will be easiest if I quote rather than paraphrase, especially as I haven't read the novel for a while. It was published in 1996, in Znamya, and was talked about a lot at the time. It was also the second of Buida's books to be published in French by Gallimard. I found it entertaining, with some excellent pages, but also some unnecessary padding. Anyway, here's my summary:

    Buida’s fiction is often framed by commentary. This is especially true of his novel Ermo, which is set in Venice and imagines the life of a world-famous Russian émigré novelist, Georgii Ermo-Nikolaev. Ermo-Nikolaev, we are told, was born in St Petersburg in 1914 and spent almost fifty years in Venice; for him, “the theme of reflection entered first into his life and only later into his art”. Ermo-Nikolaev’s life is saturated in the major historical and artistic upheavals of the twentieth century. Against this background, Buida develops the novel’s organising theme: the isolating nature of any writer’s experience and the processes of loss and detachment through which art is attained. It is an extended meditation on artistic creation which shares many features in common with Nabokov’s first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), notably the interpolation of excerpts from an invented author’s work. Unlike Nabokov, however, Buida has never lived abroad, a fact which perhaps lends the novel its dreamy atmosphere. One may apply to it a phrase quoted by Buida in Zheltyi dom and attributed to Italo Svevo: “This is an autobiography, but not my own”. In Ermo, as in much of his writing, Buida sets his fiction squarely in a pan-European intellectual context, and his work is refreshingly free of the solipsistic anxieties of the late-Soviet “underground” tradition.

  15. Thanks, that does sound interesting; I'll have to look for it.

  16. Oliver, thank you for your kind words and all your suggestions!

    A few notes...

    Ermakov's Знак зверя (Sign of the Beast) does sound interesting, particularly since it's a full-fledged novel rather than stories. When I searched library catalogues for it, I also found Afghan Tales, a volume of Marc Romano's translations of Ermakov's stories.

    As for Buida, I've been looking (on and off) for Дон домино (The Zero Train in translation) for several years, but it's very difficult to find. One Maine college library does have Ermo, though, so maybe I'll order that at some point, even though I'm not much of a Nabokovian. On the other hand, "free of the solipsistic anxieties of the late-Soviet 'underground' tradition" does sound refreshing!

    Also, for readers' reference, Buida's The Zero Train and The Prussian Bride, plus Ermakov's Sign of the Beast were all Russian Booker finalists. Oliver's translation of The Prussian Bride collection won the Rossica translation prize in 2005. The Complete Review's review of Oliver's translation of The Zero Train is here. His translations of both books are available on Amazon.

  17. Lisa, have you read «Защита Лужина» and «Дар»? Those are (so far) my favorites of Nabokov's in Russian.

  18. Languagehat, no, I haven't read either of them, though I own a copy of Дар that is currently out on loan. Several people recommended Король, дама, валет as a good first Russian Nabokov book... I bought it, so maybe I should make good on my promise (to myself) to read it this year!

  19. Лиза, I was thinking about distopias (романы-антиутопии) yesterday and suddenly remembered another E name which is an absolute must for your entry Efremov, Ivan Antonovich (1908-1972) - Иван Антонович Ефремов. There are several articles on him on Russian and English Wikipedia.

    Few modern writers made attempts at utopias. In 'Andromeda' ("Туманность Андромеды") Yefremov has created a wonderful vision of the future based on the stated, not real communist ideal. The book was written in mid 1950s and immediately became an important part of the cultural and ideological debate of the 'thaw'. I read it as a teenager and I can't tell you how exciting the ideas and visions created by Yefremov were, not least because he freely discusses notions of free love and nudity. The space-ship in the novel is called 'Tantra'.

    However, in the late 60-s he wrote 'The Bull's Hour' ("Час Быка") in which the Andromeda type humans discover a planet where oligarchy rules violently and ecology is destroyed. The book, already published and widely known, was taken as a caricature on the Soviet Union and banned, copies were taken out of public libraries, but still circulated from friend to friend. I was given a copy for just one night.

    His last novel, historical Thais of Athens ("Таис Афинская") is a hymn to hellenistic culture.

    Yefremov was also a prominent academic, a paleontologist.

    I can go on forever, but if you are not familiar with Efremov I highly recommend him - if not for pure literary merit, but for the exceptional richness in ideas and imagery.

  20. Thank you for adding Efremov, Alexander A. I've heard of him but have not yet read him... the books sound intriguing!

    I did some quick searches and see that Efremov's books seem to be readily available in both Russian and English. (Some of his books are listed on Amazon under Yefremov.) The letter E is excellent for readers looking for English translations!