Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Listed in the Zero Years

Dmitrii Bykov seems to write everything: novels, poetry, essays, literary and film criticism, even voiceovers for the documentary Девственность (Virginity). Bykov knits together elements from many of those forms in Списанные (The List), a 2008 novel that portrays aspects of Moscow life in the нулевые годы – the “zero years,” our strange current decade that apparently has no name in American English but is called “the noughties” in British English.

The book’s title refers to around 180 souls who discover they’ve been placed on a mysterious list. The verb списать (spisat’) can mean copy, and it’s the root for список (list), but it can also mean “write off” in an accounting sense.

Bykov focuses on Sergei Sviridov, a young screenwriter who, at the start of the book, is flying to a film festival in Ukraine with Маленькое чудо (The Little Miracle), a treacly sounding children’s film about a young ballerina. The List tracks Sviridov’s life after he learns he’s on the list. He meets other listees, first through the Internet, then in person, spending time with them at a dacha party, cafes, and his own bed. Despite all the meetings and events, some of which sound painfully predictable and Soviet, Bykov relies more on psychology and conversations than dramatic plot twists to move The List.

Though the list’s provenance remains something of a mystery and still feels sinister even at the end of the book, I came to see the list as a tool that characters used to build relationships and fill vacuums in their zero years lives. One chapter even covers who sleeps with whom, a Dionysian list within the list.

With all its slang, borrowed words, verbal tics, and commentary on contemporary Russian politics and culture, The List feels almost self-consciously set in our time. Bykov’s tinges of Kafka, Dostoevsky, fantasy, and the grotesque (to borrow from the blurb on the back of my book) seem, paradoxically, to add to its almost documentary atmosphere. Life is, after all, absurd.

For me, the book’s biggest shortcoming is that some passages are too busy with discussions about politics and philosophy, or cultural references. (One page mentions both Vladimir Zhabotinskii and David Cronenberg.) Though I could imagine many of the conversations taking place in what passes for real life, I thought many of the denser idea-based sections felt inorganic to the book, as if Bykov-essayist had temporarily overruled Bykov-novelist. I much preferred Bykov-novelist’s straightforward scenes focusing on Sviridov’s emotions and relationships.

With so much diverse material, I suspect that List readers have very different takes on what dominates: some will read it as a humorous novel, others will find a social novel about repression and politics in post-Soviet Russia, I see a picture of loneliness and attempts to understand what passes for reality. And so on.

The List left me with an unusual and rather odd ambivalence. Though I enjoyed some sections – like Sviridov’s struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder – when I finished, I felt a little underwhelmed. Most of the themes and ideas were familiar from the news, other fiction, and my own life. That is, I suppose, the downside of a book that focuses so closely on the present day.

The other side of my ambivalence is this: I understand why someone might like all of The List. I know many fiction readers enjoy reading political and philosophical conversations, and I suspect the book could well appeal to readers outside Russia, in translation, as one writer’s fictional but documentary-feeling picture of Russia in the noughties.

Speaking of translations: A blog reader mentioned that Alma Books is preparing a translation of another Bykov novel, ЖД, which Alma’s blog says may be translated as Living Souls or Jewhad. The post calls Living Souls “this 800-page maelstrom of a novel.” Alma also provides an interesting perspective on Russian contemporary fiction. To paraphrase, the continuing influences of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky make it difficult to export Russian writers, but Alma sees value in what “could be the classics of the future.” (Alma Books post)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Anna Karenina and American Presidents

Today’s New York Times included a curious piece: Serge Schmemann’s “Nixon and Khrushchev, the End of an Unscripted Era,” an Editorial Observer column about the Moscow “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev on July 24, 1959.

The surprising part wasn’t Schmemann’s account of their exchange of words for manure. What surprised me was that Schmemann describes Nixon as “an ardent student of Russia” who wrote to Schmemann mentioning passages from Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about Levin and his ideas for agriculture. Schmemann believes that Russian writers helped form Nixon’s interest in Russia and “played a major role in his relish to take on the Soviet leader and, I think, in the respect the Russians developed for Nixon.”

According to Elizabeth Drew’s Richard M. Nixon, at the time David Frost interviewed Nixon, Nixon gave Frost and his girlfriend a tour of his house and asked if they had read Anna Karenina. Though Drew doesn’t say whether Frost or his girlfriend read the book, she reports that Nixon called it “very romantic.”

Thinking of Nixon reading Anna Karenina reminded me that Theodore Roosevelt read the book in present-day North Dakota in 1886, while he was guarding boat thieves he and his ranch foreman had chased through the wilderness. Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt says that T.R. read AK after polishing off a volume of Matthew Arnold, and Morris writes that AK “both attracted and repelled him.”

Morris includes Roosevelt’s comments on the book, which start with “I hardly know whether to call it a very bad book or not.” Roosevelt then discusses his opinions of the characters, saying that Anna was “in a certain sense insane” because her reasoning was so unbalanced. The full text appears in this note in Nathan Miller’s Theodore Roosevelt.

Bonus: New York City Travel Tip. The combination of Theodore Roosevelt and Russian novels reminds me that Russian Bookstore No. 21 (174-176 5th Ave., Suite 200) and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace (28 E. 20th St.) are just a few blocks away from each other. Though the house where Roosevelt was born is reconstructed, the tour was interesting, and there are many significant artifacts, including the shirt T.R. was wearing when he was shot.

P.S. The July 24, 2009, New York Times contains another, longer piece about the kitchen debate: William Safire's op-ed, "The Cold War's Hot Kitchen." Safire was at the exhibit, "as a young press agent for the American company that built the house" and offers some interesting and funny anecdotes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Dostoevsky (+Dovlatov and Dal’)

Fyodor Mikhailovich, it had to be you! Dostoevsky didn’t became my letter D favorite by default, but the pool of Russian D-writers is so small and Dostoevsky is so worth reading (and rereading) that deliberations were quick and easy.

Dostoevsky and I have been acquainted since my senior year of high school, when my English class read Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment). (mentioned in this previous post) Though I haven’t reread C&P since, I feel like it’s always with me because its characters and themes are so ingrained in Russian culture that they seem to pop up in every soapy TV series I watch to keep from falling off the treadmill.

I’ve long recommended two all-time Dostoevsky favorites to anyone interested in Russia or Russian literature: Записки из подполья (Notes from the Underground) and “Легенда великого инквизитора” (“Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”), a self-contained story within the gigantic novel Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov). Записки из мёртвого дома (Notes from the House of the Dead), an account of prison camp, is another favorite: the scenes at Christmas are beautiful.

Sergei Dovlatov endeared himself to me so much with Компромисс (The Compromise) (previous post) and certain parts of Заповедник (The Reserve) that I can’t leave him out. Though some of his writing about emigration is good, for my taste, Dovlatov is at his best when he writes about Soviet absurdity.

Off-topic honorable mention goes to Vladimir Dal’ for his nineteenth-century Russian dictionaries. I have a mismatched four-volume set that I bought in the early ‘90s that seems to suck lots of time out of my schedule whenever I look up a word or expression.

The D-List for Future Reading: I have a few Dostoevsky rereads in mind, particularly Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment, plus some novellas/long stories that I’ve never read: “Вечный муж” (“The Eternal Husband”) and “Скверный анекдот (often translated as “A Nasty Story”). Dovlatov’s Зона (The Zone) is on my shelf, too, and I have high hopes for Iurii Dombrovskii’s Факультет ненужных вещей (The Faculty of Useless Knowledge). Dal’, of course, never leaves my office!

Dostoevsky on Amazon

Dovlatov on Amazon

Dombrovsky on Amazon

Monday, July 13, 2009

Demons, Anyone? Orlov’s Violist Named Danilov

Vladimir Orlov’s Альтист Данилов (Danilov, the Violist) is, for this reader, dualistic on multiple levels. The short version: this novel about a violist who’s half-human, half-demon left me with mixed feelings. Though some sections drag, I understand why many people consider Danilov a cult novel: it is often hilarious, and it includes touches like a space-age duel that results in a bodily gravitational collapse. And how could I possibly dislike a good-natured book that stars a violist and contains lines like “Фу-ты, человеком пахнет! (Roughly “Phooey, smells like a human!”)

A brief but relevant interlude about the viola: I’ve always loved the deep, earthy sound of the viola but I remember from my violin-playing years that violists rarely get solos. Viola parts are sometimes rewritten as third violin, parts I’ve played… think third fiddle. Unfortunately the dearth of good viola parts is one reason there are many unflattering stereotypes and jokes, in many cultures, about violists. Violist and ethnomusicologist Carl Rahkonen’s “No Laughing Matter: The Viola Joke as Musician’s Folklore,” a paper presented at the 1994 National Meeting of the American Folklore Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, provides perspective. (abstract here)

So! Orlov’s Danilov is a talented violist living in Brezhnev-era Moscow. He plays in orchestras and inspires a composer to write a piece just for him. Most of his life lacks in glamour: his ex-wife asks for favors, he forgets to retrieve his pants from the drycleaner, and he’s in debt. He is also falling in love. The mild-mannered Danilov lacks the flamboyance you might expect of a demon and doesn’t seem too unusual unless you know he enjoys bathing in lightning and can perform bits of magic that he sometimes regrets later.

Danilov’s love for music and dislike of wreaking havoc on earth mean trouble with his demonic handlers – he’s just too human. When Danilov travels through time and space to the Nine Layers (headquarters) for something resembling a trial, he is accused of being too helpful to earthlings. They know, for example, that he’s helped old ladies cross the street. One demon asks: “Какая пользя нам от этой старушки!” (“What use is that old lady to us!”) The clash of values between Danilov and the demons has a strongly allegorical feel. Though the demons don’t have ultimate power over humans, these growers of UFOs certainly aren’t do-gooders, and their reasoning and bureaucratic language are reminiscent of the Soviet government.

Reviews of Danilov often note similarities to Mikhail Bulgakov’s Мастер и Маргарита (Master and Margarita). Sure, there are common themes, such as parodying bureaucracy and showing struggles between earthly and otherworldly figures. Still, though both authors incorporate plenty of humor, the books left me with very different feels that seem to reflect their times. Master and Margarita leans toward darker philosophy and religion and is intellectually heftier. Danilov, with its everydayness and rational resolution, tilts toward cozier fantastical fiction about a musician I might have seen on the Moscow Metro.

Summary: I loved Danilov’s humor and magical touches. There are many more layers of characters, subplots, and themes I haven’t mentioned, including a blue bull, silencism, and people who claim to know the future. Unfortunately, these various and varying parts don’t always quite dovetail into a harmonious book. Still, Danilov is often an impressively imaginative novel, and I will look for Orlov’s more recent books -- Камергерский переулок (Kamergerskii Lane) was short-listed for the 2009 Big Book. I would particularly recommend Danilov to anyone predisposed to enjoy the combination of humor, music, and fantasy/science fiction.

Viola photo by surfbird, via Photo is called "My Viola1," and carries the note "No, it's not a violin, it's a viola."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Database of Translations & Vasilii Aksyonov’s Death

Two quick notes for this rainy evening…

First, Three Percent, a blog about international literature, posted databases listing translated books of fiction and poetry that were published in English during 2008 and 2009. I won’t get too statistical on you, but 20 books translated from Russian to English were on the 2008 list; there are 11 for 2009. The databases are up-to-date as of July 1, 2009. Get your Excel databases here – there are multiple sheets per document, sorting information by country, language, and other characteristics.

The lists should be useful for anyone interested in Russian fiction: there were writers I’d never heard of, plus I learned about the compilation Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, edited by Mikhail Iossel, and scheduled for release by Tin House in September 2009

In sadder news, writer Vasilii Aksyonov died yesterday; he was 76. Aksyonov suffered a stroke in January 2008 while he was driving. AFP’s obituary (here) outlines Aksyonov’s career and lists some of his best-known books. I might also suggest Остров Крым (The Island of Crimea), which I read about 20 years ago and remember as entertaining and imaginative satire. One of my Russian teachers always recommended Ожог (The Burn), which, I admit, I have still not read.

Aksyonov was, along with Andrei Bitov, Viktor Erofeev, Fazil Iskander, and Evgenii Popov, one of the editors of the 1979 literary “almanac” МетрОполь (MetrOpol’, with stress on the first o), a samizdat publication containing work by over 20 writers and artists. The Soviet Writers Union refused to publish it. The SovLit site contains some translated documents about the criticism that MetrOpol' drew.

Edit: The New York Times obituary for Vasilii Aksyonov (link)

Edit: The July 11, 2009, "Культунрый шок" show on Эхо Москвы honored Aksyonov's memory. link

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

2009 Russian Booker Prize Long List

With the first of July comes the first Russian Booker Prize list of the year, a long list of 24 entries chosen from a field of 82 nominees. This year’s long listers include:

Two books that have already won major prizes:

Andrei Gelasimov’s 2009 National Bestseller winner Степные боги (Steppe Gods) (previous post)

Vladimir Makanin’s 2008 Big Book winner Асан (Asan) (previous post)

Books that made the short list of the 2009 Big Book prize:

Andrei VolosПобедитель (The Victor)

Maria GalinaМалая Глуша (Small Glusha)

Leonid ZorinСкверный глобус (The Wretched Globe)

Aleksandr TerekhovКаменный мост (The Stone Bridge)

Boris KhazanovВчерашняя вечность (Yesterday’s Eternity)

Leonid IuzefovichЖуравли и карлики (beginning middle end) (Cranes and Dwarfs)

Other familiar names:

Iurii ArabovЧудо (The Miracle) (a Big Book long lister that I couldn’t get into; comments here)

Andrei BitovПреподаватель симметрии (The Symmetry Teacher)

Roman SenchinЕлтышевы (The Yeltyshevs) (beginning) (end)

Aleksandr SnegirevНефтяная Венера (Oil [as in petroleum] Venus), a 2009 Natsbest short lister

The full long list is available here on the Booker site. The Booker people will announce the short list on October 7 and the winner on December 3. The winner will receive 500,000 rubles, and each finalist will receive 50,000 rubles.