Monday, June 29, 2009

Reading Russian Books at the Beach

Ah, the inevitable seasonal spate of summer book lists has arrived! This year they got me thinking about summer reading, beach reading, and, of course, fitting Russian novels into outdoor plans.

A brief aside before I get to the books. “Summer” is a fleeting concept here in Maine. Some people like to say “we have fall, we have winter, and we have fourth of July.” Our state slogan is “The way life should be,” but many people from away (i.e. anyone, including me, not born in Maine) say the thought of cold winters prevents them from contemplating a move here. We’ve had over seven inches of rain this June, another sure way to scare people off.

I’ve found that the trick to Maine summers is to maximize any warm, dry weather that falls my way. This is where Russian books come in. I love to go for short, mid-afternoon reading sessions at the beach, before the sun gets too low and the wind picks up. The beach is very close, but the windows of weather opportunity are often achingly short and unpredictable. Saturday, for example, was warmish and partly sunny with ground-level mist upon arrival but cold, windy, and completely fogged in at departure about an hour later.

As for the books themselves, not everything reads well at the beach for me, but I don’t believe beach fiction needs to be mindless. “Escapist,” though, isn’t always a bad descriptor: if a book absorbs all my attention, I certainly forget my surroundings even when the seagulls around me tussle for cold, sandy French fries. Paradoxically, I think the best part of reading at the beach is that the waves and weather, be it good or bad, make a perfect setting for truly relaxing and contemplating what I read.

One of my most memorable stretches of beach reading was a cool fall afternoon with the lunch scene in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Lately I’ve been reading Vladimir Orlov’s Альтист Данилов (Danilov the Violist), which has a nice combination of humor, allegory, and demonology; and Il’ia Boiashov’s Танкист, или «Белый тигр» (The Tank Driver or “White Tiger”) worked well, too. Last summer’s reading included Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit) and Fedor Dostoevsky’s Бесы (The Devils or The Possessed), both of which were alternately fun and difficult, both on sand and at home.

Lest you think I am alone in suggesting Russian classics for summer or beach reading, please consider this: Jack Murnighan’s Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits (link to a summer reading challenge) includes analysis of six books from Russian writers. They are Evgenii Onegin, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Lolita. I think War and Peace and Anna Karenina would make particularly good beach reading, though I have to say it felt strange reading portions of three novellas I think of as the abstinence trilogy when surrounded at the beach by half-naked people I didn’t know.

Here are a few other suggestions for Russian fiction that’s absorbing, fun, and meaningful, too. I could list lots more but would rather see readers’ suggestions – please add yours in a comment!

-Aleksandr Pushkin’s Повести Белкина (The Belkin Tales) ~ genre fiction from way back.

-Ivan Turgenev’s novels, perhaps Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons) or Рудин (Rudin) ~ Turgenev’s books often feature some light humor and ensemble casts that won’t keep you wondering who’s who.

-Valentin Kataev’s Белеет парус одинокий (A White Sail Gleams) ~ blends coming-of-age with socialist realism with adventure. (Bonus: Black Sea setting.)

-Vera Panova’s Серёжа (Seryozha) ~ a favorite about childhood.

-Vladimir Voinovich’s Private Chonkin novels ~ very funny Soviet-era satire.

-Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels ~ suspenseful, best-selling postmodern detective novels that draw on themes from Russian literature.

P.S. Hmm, The Guardian ran a summer reading list in which Simon Schama recommends Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, writing, in part, “There must be some people who when parked on a beach feel they should be in the permafrost with Ivan Denisovich, but I’m not one of them.”

Photo of a beach in Western Australia from Loojsan, via

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Tank Driver with an Idée Fixe

Il’ia Boiashov’s Танкист, или «Белый тигр» (The Tank Driver or “White Tiger”) is a curious hybrid of a book that blends World War 2 history, mostly about tank warfare, with fantastical fiction focusing on a tank driver who nearly burns to death. If that doesn’t sound appealing, please consider this: the book was a finalist for several Russian literary awards, including the Booker and the National Bestseller awards. Boiashov’s language, humor, and historical endnotes work together to make the book both entertaining and illuminating.

The Tank Driver’s main character is Ivan Ivanovich Naidenov, a tank driver whose T-34 tank is killed in the 1943 Prokhorovka tank battle near Kursk. Ivan Ivanovich miraculously survives, disfigured by burns and an erased memory. His last name is based on the verb найти, to find. Ivan Ivanovich returns to tank driving, occasionally muttering “Белый тигр” (“White Tiger”), the name of a ghostlike tank he tries to track down.

The book contains plenty of background on war and tanks – Boiashov has a personal interest in tanks – so readers learn features of Soviet T-34s, German Tigers, and Canadian Valentines, among others. The book notes that there was no White Tiger tank model, making Ivan Ivanovich’s idée fixe resemble Captain Ahab’s, though German troops did paint tanks white in the winter.

Ivan Ivanovich, whose nicknames include Череп (Skull) and Van’ka Smert’ (Van’ka Death), is all about tanks: he’s a flawless, fearless, and decorated tank driver who runs on instinct, hears tanks speak, and believes the Great Tank Driver in the Sky can’t exist without a personal T-34. Ivan Ivanovich lacks worldly possessions, including a decent coat, so another character compares him to Akakii Akakeivich, the main character of Nikolai Gogol’s “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”). (previous post)

The other members of Naidenov’s crew have their own troubles: one is a serial womanizer who also plunders gold and other valuables, storing them in the tank; the second is a heavy drinker. Although Boiashhov said in an interview that he intended The Tank Driver to be a story of good and evil, he also notes that people and nations involved in war have a tendency to misbehave.

What’s most interesting for me about The Tank Driver is that Boiashov’s combination of allegory and fact results in a book the feels both suffused with history, thanks to its accurate information, yet removed from the everyday because of its main character’s almost schematically tragic incompleteness. Still, it was Ivan Ivanovich that held my interest whenever he drove onto the page: as a resurrected amnesiac with an obsession, Vank’a Smert’ is both sketchy and vivid, a fascinatingly touching and mythical figure.

The Tank Driver is a strange and wonderful short book. Though I admit my interest occasionally lagged in some of the longer historical and tank-oriented passages, I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about tanks and even took out two of our books on World War 2 tank warfare to look at photos. I suppose I have a history of that, though: I was a very willing visitor to the Patton Museum outside Louisville two years ago, where I saw many tanks, including a King Tiger, one of the models mentioned in The Tank Driver.

I think part of Ivan Ivanovich’s appeal is that, in his seemingly impenetrable tank skin, he sums up so much about the fragility of the human condition, representing all of us. Boiashov certainly deserved his many nominations: it takes an impressive combination of historical knowledge and literary skill to write a book that conveys so much and makes the fantastic feel so real.

Tank photos via Wikipedia: Top is Russian T-34 destroyed at Prokhorovka; photo from Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), author Koch. Second photo is of the sectioned King Tiger tank that I saw at the Patton Museum.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Back to Classics: Pushkin’s Belkin Tales

“Кто бы он там ни был, а писать повести надо вот этак: просто, коротко и ясно.”

“Whoever he is, stories should be written that way: simply, concisely, and clearly.”

-A.S. Pushkin on the identity of the writer known as Ivan Petrovich Belkin

The Writer: Aleksandr Pushkin

Work and Date: Повести Белкина (The Belkin Tales) (published 1831). The tales are: “Выстрел” (“The Shot”), Метель” (“The Blizzard”) Гробовщик” (”The Coffin Maker”/“The Undertaker”), Станционный смотритель” (“The Stationmaster”/”The Postmaster”) “Барышня-крестьянка” (“The Gentry Girl Peasant”/“The Squire’s Daughter”).

Why it’s important: Pushkin’s first completed, published prose. Interesting takes on narration and genre that continue to resonate in Russian fiction.

Online criticism, analysis, and background: Pushkin by John Bayley. Introduction to Tales of the late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, translated by Alan Myers. The Pushkin Handbook. And to see what Russian children are taught: a (Russian-language) lesson plan for “The Stationmaster.”


Part of the fun of Pushkin’s Belkin Tales is that they function like a mirror, taking on varied meanings depending on the reader’s mood, experience, and preferences. They are autobiographical. They are parodies. They are miniatures depicting the time. And so on. When I first read some of the stories – “The Stationmaster” and “The Shot” were among the first fiction I ever read in Russian – I felt simple gratitude to Pushkin for writing stories that even a third-year Russian student could understand.

Though I’ve always enjoyed the stories, reading them now, without a dictionary and with more experience recognizing genres and stock phrases, I take in The Belkin Tales much differently. I feel the autobiography, I feel the parody, and I feel the times. More than anything, though, I feel Pushkin’s skill as a prose writer.

I know that sounds like a weak, meaningless statement, but Pushkin’s achievement of “simply, concisely, and clearly” is, I think, what keeps the stories feeling so fresh and contemporary more than 150 years after they were written. Tolstoy said every writer should study them, and I couldn’t disagree: Pushkin cut out unnecessary words and description, leaving, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard, only the parts people want to read.

What makes the freshness so paradoxically unique, though, is that The Belkin Tales incorporate so many phrases, plot twists, and characters from genres popular in Pushkin’s time. “The Shot” features romanticism and a Byronic character, “The Blizzard” includes a ridiculously incredible coincidence, “The Stationmaster” is a sentimental, teary family drama, “The Coffin Maker” is a grotesque with ghosts, and “The Gentry Girl Peasant” depicts a young noblewoman who dresses as a peasant. The Belkin Tales have an almost embarrassing effect on me: each time I read them I get so caught up in enjoying the narration and subsequent atmosphere that I forget the endings, most of which are predictably genre-appropriate.

Why do I so willingly suspend my disbelief? Oddly, I think the answer lies in Pushkin’s overt exposure of storytelling techniques and their effects, which always has a way of affecting this reader’s expectations. Pushkin frames each story in multiple ways: he introduces the series of stories, which were allegedly told to and gathered by one Ivan Petrovich Belkin (rest his soul), resulting in a nested set of narrators and commentators. Even more interesting, I think, the narrators often inject themselves into their stories.

The teller of “The Coffin Maker,” for example, refuses to describe clothing, deciding to deviate “в сем случае от обычая, принятого нынешними романистами” (“in this case from the accepted habit of today’s novelists”). In “The Gentry Girl Peasant,” the narrator acknowledges the story’s readers and notes that gentry women learned about life from books. The story’s slightly goth hero, who wears a black ring “с изображением мёртвой головы” (I love this literally: “with an image of a dead head”), even teaches his beloved peasant girl (who is actually a gentry girl) to read, thinking she is illiterate. They read Nikolai Karamzin’s “Наталья, боярская дочь” (“Natalya, the Boyar’s Daughter”), a story that shares themes with “The Gentry Girl Peasant.”

I could go on and on about the intricacies of these stories, so I'll stop with this. I’m not sure I have a favorite Belkin tale, but it’s easy to name favorite aspects of two individual stories: I love the many layers of life imitating fiction in “The Gentry Girl Peasant,” and I also enjoy the melodrama, tautness, and prodigal child element of “The Stationmaster.” More than anything, though, I can’t believe how strongly this brief collection grabs me on every reread.


The Belkin Tales are a wonderful example of pleasant, easy reading that has deeper meaning. Read these stories for whatever reason you like: pure plot enjoyment, a window into life and morals in another time, or to analyze genre and Pushkin’s narrative devices. No matter how or why you read them, the stories are a perfect prose introduction to Pushkin, his use of language, and his willingness to experiment.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Gelasimov Takes NatsBest reports that Andrei Gelasimov’s novel Степные боги (Steppe Gods) won the 2009 National Bestseller literary award. I’m a little surprised it won: beyond the fact that I found Steppe Gods disappointing, German Sadulaev’s Таблетка (The Tablet) won the most votes in the previous round of voting. (Previous posts: Steppe Gods and NatsBest short list)

In other NatsBest news, bloggers on Живой Журнал (Live Journal) gave their best book vote to Sergei Nosov’s Тайная жизнь Петербургских памятников (The Secret Life of Petersburg Monuments). They also awarded the new NatsWorst prize to Vladimir Makanin’s Асан (Asan). (Previous post on Asan)

I’m about to start Il’ia Boiashov’s Танкист, или «Белый тигр» (The Tank Driver or “White Tiger”), which was shortlisted for NatsBest, Booker, and Big Book… but didn’t win any of them. The Tank Driver is a thin volume that looks particularly inviting thanks to remedial material: a diagram of a T-34-85 tank on the endpapers and background on World War 2 in readable commentaries by Boiashov.

Edit: Here's a commentary from about Gelasimov's win: "Победа 'приятного писателя'"

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Happy Birthday to “Наше всё" & Newish Translations

A.S. Pushkin. Today marks 210 years since the birth of Aleksandr Pushkin, the Russian writer also known as “наше всё” (“our everything” or “our all”). (Thanks to Josefina of Russian Blog for the Pushkin birthday reminder.)

The “our everything” tag originated in 1859 with critic Apollon Grigor’ev’s article “Взгляд на русскую литературу со смерти Пушкина” (“A Look at Russian Literature Since the Death of Pushkin”) (a brief Russian piece on the subject or the entire Russian-language Grigor’ev article). The label stuck. I particularly like Pushkin’s Повести Белкина (Belkin Tales), which became the source of my predilection for the Belkin brand of computer cables.

New Translations. I spent a few hours at BookExpo America last week, where I was reminded of several relatively new translations of Russian books. It was nice to see them on display!

Seven Stories Press released Marian Schwartz’s translation of Ivan Goncharov’s Обломов (Oblomov) last December. Schwartz translated the L.S. Geiro version of the original, which Seven Stories calls “definitive.” It was published in 1987.

New York Review of Books introduced a new translation of Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit) in April 2009. This translation, too, is based on an edition of the manuscript now considered definitive. I think the most interesting aspect of this translation is that it is the work of Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson… making it Robert Chandler’s second translation of the book. R. Chandler provides background in this comment. (Previous post on The Foundation Pit)

Finally, Ardis Publishing is now part of the Overlook Press, the house that offers Today I Wrote Nothing, Matvei Yankelevich’s translation of selected works by Daniil Kharms (2007). A paperback version will be out at the end of this month. Ardis offers a smallish but varied list of Russian books in translation, including two of my favorites, Vladimir Makanin’s Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead), plus yet another version of The Foundation Pit, this one translated by Thomas P. Whitney. (Previous post on Makanin’s novellas)

One more “finally”… If you’re looking for Russian books in new English translation and missed last week’s post on the 2009 Academia Rossica prize, here’s a direct link to the PDF of the Rossica Prize brochure. It includes a list of all nominees plus excerpts from the finalists, in Russian and English, making it a particularly fun piece for bilingual reading.

Pushkin on Amazon

The Foundation Pit on Amazon

Marian Schwartz's translation of Oblomov

Baby Pushkin portrait by Xavier de Maistre, 1800-1802