Thursday, April 30, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Voinovich

Third up in “A to Я”: the Russian letter В, V in the Roman alphabet. This isn’t an especially high-volume letter for writers, but it does include one of my true favorites: Vladimir Voinovich. Hearing Voinovich read one night in Moscow made me enjoy his writing even more. I don’t remember what he read that evening but I remember how his authorial presence and voice filled the room. I hear that voice when I read his books.

Voinovich is best known for his novel Жизнь и необычайные приключения солдата Ивана Чонкина (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin), an account of a rather simple soldier’s experiences guarding an airplane in a village. Voinovich calls Chonkin a “роман-анекдот,” a novel-joke, and it’s very, very funny, whether you want to call it absurd, satirical, or sardonic, the word Victor Terras uses in A History of Russian Literature.

Voinovich has written plenty of other books, including Претендент на престол (Pretender to the Throne), a Chonkin sequel that I’ve been saving for when I’m grumpy and need some guaranteed laughs, and Москва 2042 (Moscow 2042), a political satire that I enjoyed many years ago. I also liked much of the uneven Монументальная пропаганда (Monumental Propaganda), in which a woman brings a Stalin statue into her apartment. The long story Хочу быть честным (“I Want to Be Honest”) is a vague, sentimental memory that I barely recall because I read it so long ago: it was one of the first contemporary Russian stories that I read for fun.

Another sentimental favorite is Julia Voznesenskaya’s Женский декамерон (The Women’s Decameron), which I read and loved at least twice in Russian, once in English. Voznesenskaya shifts the structure of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron to a Soviet maternity hospital, where 10 women are quarantined for 10 days. The brevity of the episodes made the book a perfect way to ease into reading in Russian, and several of the stories and characters have stayed with me over the years. Unfortunately, the box with my copy of the book got lost between Moscow and Maine, along with The Brothers Karamazov, Lolita, and training manuals about evaluating government-funded projects… what a combination of reading!

The V-List for Future Reading: Beyond Pretender to the Throne, I will read Voinovich’s Шапка (The Fur Hat) one of these years. There’s another V-authored clothing story in my future: Boris Vakhtin’s Дублёнка (The Sheepskin Coat), which is in a Metropol book I recently bought. Vakhtin is the son of Vera Panova, another favorite, so I’m looking forward to reading his work.

One day I will also read Anastasia Verbitskaia’s Ключи счастья (Keys of Happiness) and take another look at Maksimilian Voloshin’s poetry… Please add comments with other recommendations. 

To finish, here’s a favorite song from actor, singer, and writer Vladimir Vysotskii: “Большой каретный (“Big Karetnyi”), named after a Moscow street: “Большой каретный

Voznesenskaya on Amazon

Voinovich on Amazon

Vakhtin on Amazon

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rossica Translation Short List, Big Book Long List

Finally, news about a prize for Russian-English translation! The Rossica Translation Prize named its 2009 shortlist last week. The award covers classic and contemporary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, so the nominees are pretty diverse.

I’ve read a few of the books: M. Ageyev’s Роман с кокаином (Novel with Cocaine or Romance with Cocaine, even the Rossica site can’t decide! Translation: Hugh Aplin), Fedor Dostoevskii’s Униженные и оскорбленные (Humiliated and Insulted, translation: Ignat Avsey), and Vladimir Sorokin’s Лёд (Ice, translation: Jamey Gambrell). Of the three, I liked the mysterious Novel with Cocaine best, though it’s been a couple decades since I read it.

The other finalists are Andrei Babchenko’s Война одного солдата (One Soldier’s War, translation: Nick Allen), Viktor Pelevin’s Священная книга оборотня (The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, translation: Andrew Bromfield), Maria Galina’s Гиви и Шендерович (Iramifications, translation: Amanda Love Darragh), and Elena Shvarts’s poetry collection Birdsong on the Seabed, translation: Sasha Dugale for this bilingual book.

Summaries of the Rossica shortlist books are here, and the longlist is here.

Meanwhile, the Russian Big Book Award “experts” named a longlist of 48 books and manuscripts. Three entries are also on the National Bestseller short list: Andrei Gelasimov’s Степные боги (Steppe Gods), Sergei Nosov’s Тайная жизнь петербургские памятники (The Secret Life of Petersburg Monuments), and Aleksandr Snegirev’s Нефтяная Венера (Oil [think petroleum] Venus).

A few other books on Big Book's big list: Boris Khazanov’s Вчерашняя вечность (Yesterday’s Eternity), which won the “major prose” category in the “Russian Award” competition, and biographies of Bulat Okudzhava and Mikhail Bulgakov, written by, respectively, Dmitrii Bykov and Aleksei Varlamov. Vladimir Sorokin was nominated for a double entry, Сахарный Кремль (The Sugar Kremlin) and День опричника (The Oprichnik’s Day). Eight nominees are listed with titles but authors denoted as “Manuscript No. X.”

Novel with Cocaine (NB: Aplin's translation is not on Amazon)
The Humiliated and Insulted on Amazon
One Soldier's War on Amazon
Sacred Book of the Werewolf on Amazon
Iramifications on Amazon
Birdsong on the Seabed on Amazon
Ice on Amazon

Monday, April 20, 2009

Two from Terts: “Liubimov” and “Pkhents”

It’s difficult to believe the same person -- Andrei Siniavskii (pseudonym Abram Terts) -- wrote the busy novella Любимов (Liubimov or The Makepeace Experiment) and “Пхенц” (“Pkhents”), a restrained short story. Both pieces contain the science fictionish and/or grotesque elements Terts thought reflected life better than realism but, stylistically, the stories are opposites.

Liubimov reminds me of a pint of ice cream that’s so overloaded with the conflicting flavors of chips, nuts, and other marginally edible stuff that it’s hard to taste the ice cream itself. On the crude plot summary level, Liubimov is a dystopia of sorts concerning a bicycle repairman who leads a small city using hypnotism. In my favorite scene, unprestigious foodstuffs take on luxe flavors: water becomes alcohol, canned red peppers become beef, and cucumbers become sausage.

It’s too bad Terts piled on so many genre elements, literary devices, and tangents – folk tale, religion, unclean forces, footnotes, and on and on – that the story and its underlying questions about truth, lies, and history nearly get lost. With its spirits, inventive language, and fast pace, I can’t argue with the blurb in my book that says Liubimov descended from Gogol, Bulgakov, and Platonov. It has some wonderful material, but it’s a little too antic and crowded for my taste.

Staying with the dessert theme: if “Pkhents” were ice cream, it would be a rich vanilla with a twist of high-quality fudge or peanut butter. I read the story as an afterthought because it followed Liubimov in my book. It’s a beautifully crafted story about someone with a hunchback who lives in Moscow under false documents. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the surprise of the story – I knew what it was and wish I hadn’t – but I will say that the story is very, very touching in showing how loneliness affects us. “Pkhents” is simple and quietly funny, too, with some fantastic остранение (defamiliarization). The story is oddly mesmerizing, and I recommend it very highly.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the role these stories played in Terts’s show trial for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda in 1966. Certain works published in the West -- Liubimov, along with On Socialist Realism and The Trial Begins – underpinned the indictment against Terts. Although “Pkhents” didn’t figure into the indictment, in his closing plea Terts invoked a line from the story about being different. He then commented, in the translation given in Max Hayward’s book On Trial, “Well, I am different. But I do not regard myself as an enemy; I am a Soviet man, and my works are not hostile works.” Terts was tried along with writer Iulii Daniel (Nikolai Arzhak) (previous post on Arzhak). Neither pled guilty. Both were convicted: Terts received a seven-year sentence, and Daniel received five years.

Max Hayward's On Trial
Abram Terts on Amazon

Thursday, April 16, 2009

2009 National Bestseller Short List

It shouldn’t take too much effort to blog up the National Bestseller short list for 2009: I can cut and paste a few nominees from entries on previous long lists, short lists, and winners. Here you go:

German Sadulaev's Таблетка (The Tablet) seems to be a constant prize candidate, the Miss/Mr. Congeniality that never wins. (summary on 2008 Booker short list post) It’s the frontrunner for the Natsbest, though, with 10 points.

Andrei Gelasimov was nominated for Степные боги (Steppe Gods), a mystical-sounding book that’s set to the east of Lake Baikal just before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Characters include a local child and a Japanese doctor who’s a prisoner of war. (6 points)

Sergei Nosov's Тайная жизнь петербургских памятников (The Secret Life of Petersburg Monuments) contains essays about, yes, little-known monuments in St. Petersburg. (6 points)

Sergei Samsonov’s Аномалия Камлаева (The Kamlaev Anomaly) is evidently about an underground musician. (6 points)

Aleksandr Snegirev was nominated for Нефтяная Венера (Oil [the petroleum kind] Venus), about a young, successful architect’s relationship with his son, who has Down’s syndrome. (6 points)

Il’ia Boiashov, a past Natsbest winner, reached the short list this year for Танкист, или "Белый тигр" (The Tank Driver or "White Tiger")a historical novel about World War 2 tank drivers that was nominated for last year’s Big Book and Booker. (5 points)

P.S. Several of these books -- Snegirev’s, Boiashov’s, and Gelasimov’s -- are available for PDF download on The site says all its downloads are legal, offered under an agreement with whomever holds the rights to the books. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Aleshkovskii’s “Fish”: The Big Novel that Got Away

That’s it: I’ll limit myself to just one fish pun for this post. But I can’t help myself for calling Petr Aleshkovskii’s (Peter Aleshkovsky) Рыба. История одной миграции (Fish. The Story of One Migration) a big novel that got away.

Fish begins in Tadzhikistan, where a teenage girl named Vera (Faith) lives with her Russian parents. Vera works one summer on an archeological dig, where she helps reconstruct, like a puzzle (пазл=pazl!), a fresco with a fish. Later that summer, Vera’s personal horseman of the apocalypse arrives: an Uzbek on a black horse who rapes her after drugging her with a nasty drink he’s brewed.

The trauma affects Vera, directly and indirectly, for the rest of the book. She becomes a nurse with somewhat mystically therapeutic hands and takes care of others, including her husband, a former patient, who, medically unable to work as a policeman, takes a job at a slaughterhouse and becomes an alcoholic. He’s the one who begins calling Vera a cold fish. Through the course of the book, Vera’s migrations take her to Dushanbe for education, a border town in Russia to escape war, the country for quiet after a son overdoses and her husband becomes a monk, and, finally, Moscow for a live-in nursing job. When the book ends, Vera is about to move to Italy to become a nanny.

All of which means that Fish, which was short-listed for the 2006 Russian Booker Prize, contains plenty of great material about life in Central Asia, the stresses of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and personal trauma. Unfortunately, though, Fish plods its way through geographical and emotional territory, squandering opportunities to expand the book beyond an accounting of sites seen and indignities experienced.

A few very vivid scenes stand out – a voyeuristic, sensual passage in a Tadzhik garden and Vera’s walk in the woods are particularly good – but other portions of the book are woefully underdeveloped. I kept waiting for details about Vera’s family’s fish-based business in the border town, after they’ve migrated to Russia, but nothing ever came. Aleshkovskii’s strength is in writing about nature – the beautiful chapters in the woods in Жизнеописание хорька (mistranslated as Skunk: A Life) made that book well worth reading – so expanding the fish theme seemed natural.

I think a big part of the problem in Fish is the first-person narrative. I don’t believe Aleshkovskii fails in writing from a woman’s perspective, but I think a third-person narrative would have enabled far broader and more nuanced observations of Vera’s experiences. There are tremendous inherent difficulties with narrating a book from the point of view of a person who’s so emotionally spent.

Vera fills her days and nights with extra work, much of it menial, as if she is carrying a saintly burden. She rarely reflects on her past… until the very last page, when she starts thinking back on the people and events in her life, and feels her “я” (“I”) separate from her body as she did when she was raped. This time, though, she calls the experience спасение (salvation) and, remembering the advice of an elderly Estonian man who rescued her after a failed pilgrimage of sorts, she realizes she needs to радоваться (be glad, feel joy). All the pieces of her life, like the puzzle of the fish fresco, seem to come together.

One interesting aspect of this rushed ending is that it occurs in a Moscow apartment at Metro “Беговая (“Begovaia”), named for the nearby hippodrome. The root of Begovaia, beg, means run(ning). The name neatly brings back the horse theme and, perhaps, Vera’s move away from Begovaia will finally signify the end of her numbness and escape from her self. Numbness is an important theme: others in Fish anesthetize themselves with alcohol and drugs, and some do not survive.

Unfortunately, I can’t argue too much with a Russian friend who thinks Aleshkovskii is just plain boring. I can’t say Fish was just plain boring, and I wanted very much to like it, but it wasn’t always very compelling, despite the cultural, religious, and current history motifs that Aleshkovskii wove in. With more detail and depth, Fish could have become a very significant book about social and personal changes, but instead it feels like an uneven draft, a big novel that slithered away.

Image: Auroqueiro, via

Saturday, April 4, 2009

“War and Peace”: The End

I’ve realized that Maine winters and War and Peace have more in common than I ever thought: I love both very much, but both are so long that I’m always glad to see them end. Tip for betting people: I’m far more likely to reread War and Peace within the next 10 years than move to a climate with no snow, but that’s a topic for a completely different blog.

My honest opinion on blogging about War and Peace: it’s not easy. For me, the problem wasn’t so much that everything’s already been written about War and Peace. It’s Tolstoy’s tendency to recycle themes: mistakes in combat, the propensity to lie, etc. That repetition meant that I felt like I was rehashing old topics over and over in each blog entry. So, a few random thoughts to close out my War and Peace series:

What I enjoy most about War and Peace is that Tolstoy manages to express his messages through both form and content. The idea that life is not completely knowable, for example, appears in his essays, in the fictional passages of the book, and in the very structure of the novel itself, a mashup of genres that covers a lot in 1,200 pages from various angles… but still can’t cover everything, despite all the minutiae. It must, in the end, end!

Oddly, on this fourth reading, the book’s fictional epilogue struck me as more final than it ever did before. Of course Pierre’s ultimate fate is unclear – he might change his mind and quit the Decembrists instead of being exiled – but Pierre seems settled into a new phase in life. And, sure, the fictional portion of the book ends with a new generation, in the person of young Nikolenka, who is afraid of the dark but dreaming of heroics worthy of Plutarch. Still, even the end of the section -- “…” -- felt more like a wrap-up than a new beginning.

Again, not all of life is knowable, but Tolstoy left me with a clean break. I know where most of my characters are, and they seem relatively content. Another factor that signaled “The End”: some of the epilogue’s descriptions felt rushed or programmed or glued on, particularly the mention of “what would Platon Karataev think?” and the fable-like story of Nikolai’s short temper, with its symbolic cameo ring.

What surprises me most about the epilogue, though, is that some readers evidently resent Tolstoy’s depiction of Natasha. The complaint is that she has gained weight, let herself go after giving birth to lots of children, and become a nag. I don’t quite buy those complaints because, for one thing, even fictional characters often grow up. I think Natasha’s adult life fits her youth: Tolstoy created Natasha -- who is, after all, a fictional character -- to evolve this way.

The epilogue Natasha feels like she’s developed logically, organically. Natasha has always had a sharp and honest tongue, and she is an intuitive character who loves family. To me, the most interesting phrase of the epilogue’s descriptions of Natasha is this: “сильная, красивая и плодовитая самка,” roughly a strong, beautiful and fertile/fecund female of the species. Tolstoy writes that, at times, Natasha is more attractive than ever before.

I also don’t believe that Pierre has suddenly become hen-pecked. Remember how Anna Mikhailovna guided him at his father’s deathbed? And how he joined the masons because he wanted discipline in his life? Pierre has always searched for a framework for his behavior, only to find a form of freedom in captivity and then, finally, the opportunity to marry Natasha. I also have to think that if Natasha were truly such a harpy, she wouldn’t let him plot against the tsar!

One other section of the book struck me on this reading: the last days of Petya Rostov. Petya’s Rostovian generosity and emotion are on display as he shares raisins and makes sure a French prisoner drummerboy is fed. He declares his love for Dolokhov, whom he sees as a hero. On his last night, Petya experiences his surroundings as a “волшебное царство” (magical kingdom) replete with остранение, where everything becomes defamiliarized and doesn’t fit expected reality. A black spot could be a guard post or an eye of a huge monster. Everything is possible and, dozing off, Petya even starts to hear and conduct orchestral music in his head. A few pages later, he dies after a resounding “Uraaaa!” Denisov howls like a dog, remembering the Petya who offered up all his raisins despite his affection for sweets.

Of course I remembered Petya would die, but his death felt sadder to me than ever, perhaps because the passage with the magical kingdom and music takes place at night and feels so dreamy. The harmony of the instruments and voices, joined by the sounds of horses and a Cossack sharpening a saber, reads as a metaphor for life, and Petya’s joy feels as childlike as ever. The passage even reminds me a bit of the night when Natasha can’t sleep and wants to fly out the window.

Prince Andrei’s death was also sadder for me than before: his physical and psychological conditions somehow seemed especially vivid and painful. Still, despite identifying with him better this time around because of his straightforwardness, his fading life didn’t move me like Petya’s sudden, passionate last hours. 

After reading nearly 1,200 pages (okay, full disclosure: minus the final essay on history) for a fourth time, it’s the characters’ passion for life and the propensity for human error that that passion generates that will bring me back to War and Peace again some year. That, to me, is the soul of the book, so I’ll watch everyone live, grow, argue, love, go to war, err, and die again. Tolstoy creates characters that feel relentlessly lifelike yet programmed for fiction, so I’m sure I’ll discover new words, quirks, and passages I’d never considered much before. That’s just the way life is.