Sunday, March 29, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Bulgakov and Brodsky

The Russian letter Б – B in the Roman alphabet – is tremendously busy! A letter has to be pretty good if the list of not-favorite authors includes Isaak Babel, Andrei Belyi, and Ivan Bunin.

But then there is Mikhail Bulgakov, whose novella Собачье сердце (Heart of a Dog) has been a favorite for years, thanks to Bulgakov’s humor in depicting bureaucracy, the Soviet housing shortage, and what I will just call a medical transformation. I thoroughly enjoyed Bulgakov’s play Иван Васильевич (Ivan Vasilyevich) in late 2007, too. (Previous post)

Though I have a more complicated relationship with Мастер и Маргарита (Master and Margarita), I love the Soviet-era passages -- particularly Satan’s ball and certain other scenes involving unclean forces -- more than enough to put Bulgakov onto my favorites list. Next time I read M&M I will use Kevin Moss’s Master & Margarita Web site to compensate for my embarrassingly anemic knowledge of the Bible. Maybe then the many sections of the book set in Biblical times will mean more to me, and I’ll be able to connect the novel’s two tracks.

I also want to mention a poet: Joseph Brodsky. I first read Brodsky in grad school, rather incidentally, when a professor handed out Brodsky’s “Бабочка” (“The Butterfly”) as an example of a poem whose shape mirrors its content. A few years later, I was asked to translate a few Brodsky poems for a stage production. The poems were horrifically difficult for me, and when I asked a Russian co-worker for help, he also found them difficult and told me he thought of Brodsky’s poems as an uncomfortable house that he didn’t enjoy visiting. I’ve heard similar comments from other Russians.

I understood. But now that nearly 20 years have passed and I’ve increased my Russian vocabulary and cultural knowledge, I love visiting Brodsky’s poetic house. I read his work rather randomly so don’t know why I seem to have a preference for his poems from the ‘70s, though I know it’s the existential themes I like best. One of my favorites so far, Я сижу у окна,” reads as an interpretation-translation in Howard Moss’s English-language New Yorker version, “I Sit by the Window.”

The B-List for Future Reading: There’s a lot to look forward to in the letter Б: I want to make amends to Ivan Bunin by reading beyond Солнечный удар (“Sunstroke”), the first story in a collection I never quite seem to get into… perhaps something longer, like Жизнь Арсеньева (The Life of Arsenyev) or Деревня (The Village), will hold my interest. Then there is Isaak Babel’, whose Конармия (Red Cavalry) scared me off with its brutality. I think it’s finally time to read all Babel’s Одесские рассказы (Odessa Stories). One of these years I will also get to Petr Boborykin’s Китай-город (transliterated: Kitai-gorod; the translation Chinatown is a false friend... see comments for more), which has been sitting on my shelf, untouched, for years, though it comes highly recommended by several friends.

My reread list includes Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog and Andrei Belyi’s Петербург (Petersburg), which I remember as a difficult but very rewarding symbolist novel. I also want to put in a better effort at reading Bulgakov’s Белая гвардия (The White Guard); maybe the third attempt will be a charm. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

International Booker, Russian Literature Week, Figes Update

A few news items for a chilly Friday: 

Liudmila Ulitskaya is one of 14 contenders for the 2009 Man Booker International Prize. Other nominees are Peter Carey, Evan S. Connell, Mahasweta Devi, E.L. Doctrow, James Kelman, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arnost Lustig, Alice Munro, V.S. Naipaul, Joyce Carol Oates, Antonio Tabucchi, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, and Dubravka Ugresic.

Judges are Jane Smiley (chair), Amit Chaudhuri, and Andrei Kurkov. Kurkov writes in Russian, lives in Ukraine, and seems to be far better known in Europe than in the United States. I have yet to read him, but one of these days I will find a hard copy of his Смерть постороннего (Death and the Penguin). And read it.

Speaking of Europe, I envy those of you in the U.K. who can attend the “Books from Russia” Russian Literature Week events in April! Dmitrii Bykov, Vladimir Makanin, Ol’ga Slavnikova, and Mikhail Shishkin are among the writers who will take part in discussions and seminar. Academia Rossica will also announce finalists for its Rossica Prize for translation.

Finally, I listened today to last week’s “Культурный шок (“Culture Shock”) show on Echo of Moscow radio. One topic of discussion was the decision of publishing house Atticus not to publish the Russian-language translation of Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers (the story). Sergei Parkhomenko, a guest on the show, has been involved in the translation project and swears the book will eventually appear in Russian. The Dinastiia Foundation, which supports publication of educational and scientific books, is also part of the project.

Ulitskaya on Amazon
Kurkov on Amazon
Figes on Amazon

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Akunin and Akhmatova

It’s nice that the Russian Cyrillic and Roman alphabets both begin with A… And that the gift of a Boris Akunin book, Любовница смерти (The Lover [fem.] of Death), pushed me to begin reading in Russian again back in 2001.

Akunin’s first nine books in the Новый детективъ (New Detective) series, starring Erast Fandorin, are wonderfully entertaining books that contain numerous allusions to Russian classics. Fandorin, whom Akunin purposely made vulnerable and appealing to women, knows martial arts, is a natty dresser, and wins in games of chance. The books take place in roughly 1875-1900 and are a wonderful combination of period atmosphere and postmodern techniques.

Each of the New Detective books is intended to represent a subgenre of detective novels: conspiratorial, hermetic, spy, and so on. Unfortunately, to borrow the terms of a Russian woman I once met, I think Akunin wrote himself out after the first nine Fandorin books: the prequels and sequels felt like potboilers, particularly the story where Fandorin visits the Wild West.

I read the Fandorin series out of order, starting with the eighth book, but I’d recommend beginning with the beginning, Азазель (The Winter Queen), and following the list. But… Non-Russian readers getting a start reading in Russian might want to begin with the Lover books: my recollection is that their language is much easier. Suspense makes detective novels a great way to take up reading in a foreign language.

Part of the fun of the Fandorin books is picking out references to classics. The Winter Queen plays on themes from Nikolai Karamzin’s “Бедная Лиза” (“Poor Liza”), which is fitting for the first book since Karamzin’s 18th-century sentimental tale is one Russian literature’s earliest classics. 

One of my Fandorin books, Особые поручения (Special Assignments), includes an excellent piece by critic Lev Danilkin that discusses Akunin’s technique, calling him a Jack the Ripper of a writer who tears apart the canon and reassembles it. Danilkin also notes that Russian readers feel comfortable with the series because of familiarity with subtexts and characters. I read the books so quickly the first time (the suspense!) that I’d like to reread them to catch more of the allusions.

Though I don’t read a lot of poetry, I want to mention Anna Akhmatova, whose “Реквием” (“Requiem”) [Russian-English page] is a haunting cycle of poems about the Stalinist repression. I have a particular affinity for “Requiem” because a Russian theater troupe performed it here in Portland, in Russian, in a beautiful production composed entirely of poetry. The Anna Akhmatova Museum is one of my favorite places in St. Petersburg. (The photo shows a monument to Akhmatova near the Kresty prison, which is mentioned in “Requiem.”)

The A-List for Future Reading: Petr Aleshkovskii’s Рыба. История одной миграции (Fish. The Story of One Migration) is tops on my list for when I finish War and Peace. Another A-book on my shelf is Viktor Astaf’ev’s Печальный детектив (The Sad Detective). Chingiz Aitmatov’s Плаха (The Scaffold) is out on loan but I’m particularly curious about it after reading Amateur Reader’s accounts of Aitmatov’s И дольше века длится день (The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years).Anna Akhmatova on Amazon
Peter Aleshkovsky on Amazon
Chingiz Aitmatov on Amazon
Viktor Astaf'ev on Amazon

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

National Bestseller 2009 Long List

I get a kick out of the National Bestseller awards: this is the prize that invites occasional jury members who aren’t writers, publishers, or critics. This year’s big jury is lots of literary people plus a psychoanalyst and a ballerina. And why not? Lots of us are good readers.

Anyway, the good people of the Natsbest issued a long list of nominees (plus their nominators), and the term “long list” certainly applies: according to, it has 57 books. I’ll trust their number though I wonder about duplications...

This list is a little unusual for me because I’ve actually read one of the books: Vladimir Makanin’s Асан (Asan). I don’t mean to be a bad sport, but, honestly, I think the Big Book prize is enough for Asan (previous post that shows why).

Here are some of the other nominees:

Leonid Iuzefovich for Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Dwarfs) (a review). Iuzefovich won the first Natsbest prize in 2001 for Князь ветра (Prince of the Wind) and received several nominations this year for the new book.

Andrei Turgenev for Чтобы Бог тебя разорвал изнутри на куски (a tough one to translate and contemplate but… Let God Tear You to Pieces from the Inside). This unwieldy title won multiple nominations, too. (A review.)

Boris Minaev for Психолог (The Psychologist). Ditto on multiple nominations.

Mikhail Elizarov, last year’s Booker winner, for a new book, Кубики (Blocks [childrens building blocks]).

Il’ia Boiashov, a past Natsbest winner, for Танкист, или "Белый тигр" (The Tank Driver or "White Tiger"), which was nominated for last year’s Big Book and Booker. 

Andrei Gelasimov for Степные боги (Steppe Gods). I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of Gelasimov’s other writing. (past post)

Publisher Aleksandr Ivanov nominated German Sadulaev’s Таблетка (The Tablet), another nominee that was on last year’s Booker short list. (Here it is, for easy reference and links to things Sadulaev.)

I mention Aleksandr Ivanov, head of Ad Marginem publishing house, for a reason: Echo of Moscow’s “Book Casino” show for March 1, 2009, featured Ivanov and Zakhar Prilepin, last year’s National Bestseller winner, for Грех (Sin), which I thought was very, very good. (Read why here.)

The show, archived here, was lots of fun to listen to. Ivanov and Prilepin discuss Sadulaev (who Ivanov thinks will be a literary star) and other contemporary writers, teaching of classics, and much more. I highly recommend “Книжное казино” to Russian speakers who love books.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

All the (Old) News from Last Week

Hmm, last week was one of those weeks when there was so much Russian lit-related news that I could have written a post a day. Of course I didn’t. Atonement, in the forum of a summary:


Viktor Astaf’ev received, posthumously, the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn prize. Astaf’ev is probably best-known for his novels Проклятые и убитые (The Damned and the Dead), a nominee for 1993 Russian Booker Prize, and Печальный детектив (The Sad Detective). (His books in Russian, online)

The Russian Prize jury named its long lists of nominees for authors writing in Russian but living outside Russia. Many of the novelist names are unfamiliar, but I read Zinovii Zinik’s Mushroom Picker years ago in translation (it left a favorable impression) and remember Aleks Tarn as a 2007 Booker nominee. I also have a book of stories by Boris Khazanov on my shelf: a friend read and loved them. Here’s the full list of nominees for poetry, short prose, and long prose.

Politics & Books

A story from March 4th reports that Orlando Figes’s book The Whisperers, about life in the Stalin era, will not appear in Russian translation as planned. The Guardian has more, including Figes’s allegation that a Russian publisher, Atticus, cancelled publication for political reasons. Atticus cited business reasons – a focus on potential bestsellers rather than small print runs – for the cancellation. I thought The Whisperers was very good (previous post).

Meanwhile, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration accused writer Viktor Erofeev of extremism and Russophobia for his novel Энциклопедия русской души (Encyclopedia of the Russian Soul). Erofeev has always been controversial: I remember when, in the perestroika era, one Russian friend gave me a copy of Erofeev’s Русская красавица (Russian Beauty), which another friend denounced (without having read it) as trash. I have yet to read the book so don’t know if I think it’s trash or not, but I do wish “they” would just leave Erofeev and Sorokin and other writers in peace to write their books.



An item from March 5th reports that three new cultural institutions should open in downtown Moscow before 2010: a museum in honor of Mikhail Bulgakov, a cinema arts library named for Sergei Eisenshtein, and a museum honoring the family of film director Andrei Tarkovskii. Andrei Tarkovskii’s father, Arsenii, was a poet; he is buried in the same Peredelkino cemetery as Boris Pasternak.

Vasilii Aksenov underwent an operation last week for a blood clot. He had a stroke last January.

Believe it or not, Britains often lie about having read books. 1984 and War and Peace top the list of “books we pretend we have read.”


Speaking of War and Peace, which I truly am still reading… I’ll be writing a little less about War and Peace in the immediate future but I plan to start a new series, “Russian Writers: A to Я,” very soon. I’ll start with A, and continue through the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, listing a favorite prose writer and poet for each letter.

Oh yes, and happy International Women’s Day! Though there is still a thick layer of snow on the ground here in Maine, mud season is clearly underway, a sure sign of spring. Maybe the crocus will sprout soon. 

Viktor Astaf'ev on Amazon
Zinovii Zinik on Amazon
Boris Khazanov on Amazon
Orlando Figes on Amazon
Viktor Erofeev on Amazon
Vasilii Aksenov on Amazon

Photo from 13dede, via

Saturday, March 7, 2009

"War and Peace": What Russian Kids Are Supposed to Learn

Now, for something completely different... This week I looked up the Russian government learning standards for Russian literature in high school and found guidelines on what Russian schoolkids should learn when they read War and Peace. Here are some highlights, in my very casual translation. (Russian original is a long PDF available here.)

-History of the work.

-The genre uniqueness of the novel. Particularities of the composition, antithesis as the central device of composition.

-The “inner person” and the “outer person.” Characters, Tolstoy’s ideas on morality, his criteria for assessing personality/character.

-Andrei Bolkonsky, Pierre Bezukhov, and their ideological/moral quests.

-Platon Karataev and the author’s conception of “common life.” [“in common”]

-Portrayal of society.

-Lifestyles of the Rostov and Bolkonsky families.

-Natasha Rostova and Princess Mar’ia as Tolstoy’s favorites heroines.

-The role of the epilogue.

-Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. The theme of war in the novel.

-Military topics: Schengraben, Austerlitz, and Borodino (as a centerpiece of the novel), and the portrayal of the war of 1812 and partisan warfare.

-The question of national character.

-The characters Tushin, Timokhin, Shcherbatov. [And you thought they were minor!]

-The question of true and false heroism.

-Tolstoy’s portrayal of the Russian soldier.

-Kutuzov and Napoleon as polar opposites.

-Moscow and St. Petersburg in the novel.

-The psychologism of Tolstoy’s prose.

-Devices for portraying the spiritual lives of characters (“the dialectic of the soul”).

-Use of portrait, landscape, dialogue, and internal monologue.

-The meaning of the title and the poetics of the epic novel.

-Tolstoy’s artistic discoveries, and the worldwide significance of the writer’s works.  

That’s a lot to cover in the allotted 20-25 hours, but I’m sorry they left out one of the topics we discussed in depth when I studied the book: mistakes, randomness, and how planning goes awry. Of course this theme fits into some of the topics on the school list – notably, the philosophy of history – but I think it’s central to understanding the book, particularly since the form and the content of War and Peace complement each other.

I can’t help but mention two favorite episodes from this past week’s reading:

I’ve always enjoyed the scene (Book 3, Part 1, Section 19) where Pierre, after reading the Apocalypse, tries his hand at numerology and rigs the system. Both Napoleon and Pierre come out equal to the number 666, denoting Napoleon as the antichrist and, somehow, connecting Pierre with Napoleon.

A little later (Book 3, Part 2, Section 5), Tolstoy describes August heat and drought in almost Apocalyptic terms: swamps are dried up, crops are burned, and cattle are starving. A couple pages later, Prince Andrei comes across our friend Timokhin (see above!) and other soldiers at a dirty pond, swimming. Andrei sees them as naked, white bodies, meat, cannon fodder.

This brief second passage strikes me as containing layers of religious meaning: one man crosses himself before taking a running jump into the water, strengthening the feel that the men are cleansing themselves before death. Prince Andrei shudders looking at all the bodies, including his own.