Monday, October 26, 2009

Notable New Translations: Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future

By my calculation, “new” describes about 5/7 of Memories of the Future, a collection of Soviet-era stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky translated by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov. Liesl Schillinger’s review of Memories of the Future, published by New York Review Books, appeared in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review.

Why is Memories of the Future not all new? I don’t have either book, but it sounds like two of the stories in Memories of the Future already appeared in 7 Stories, translated by Turnbull, and published in 2006 by Glas. Turnbull won the 2007 Rossica Prize for translating 7 Stories. (One story, “Quadraturin,” seems to be in both Krzhizhanovsky collections plus Russian Stories from Pushkin to Buida.) The Literary Saloon noted the overlap in a post last week that also, quite rightfully, bemoaned the pathetic and chronic dearth of reviews of translations in the New York Times Book Review. The Complete Review’s favorable review of 7 Stories includes links to other reviews of that book.

I confess: I haven’t yet read Krzhizhanovsky. If you haven’t either and want to read him in English translation, you could start with Turnbull’s version of Yellow Coal, available online here. A very brief story, “Flylephant,” translated by Andrea Gregovich, is here. A number of Russian originals are online here.

A couple unrelated, moderately recent items…

Russian Book Market,” by Chad Post, from the Three Percent blog, about discussion of, yes, the Russian book market, at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The final twist in Nabokov’s untold story,” by Robert McCrum, from The Observer, about The Original of Laura.

Krzhizhanovsky on Amazon

The Original of Laura on Amazon

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ostap Bender: The (NEP-Era) Rich Cry, Too

Ilya Ilf and Evgenii Petrov’s Двенадцать стульев (The Twelve Chairs) and Золотой телёнок (The Golden Calf or The Little Golden Calf) don’t provide much practical advice on finding diamonds in antique furniture or conning a crooked Soviet millionaire. But anyone who reads them will certainly come away rich with insights into Russian humor and catchphrases.

I read the two books back-to-back – 600-plus pages of satire published in 1928 (Chairs) and 1931 (Calf) – and admit I was itching to get back to contemporary fiction when I finished. But I also confess that I miss Ostap Bender, the rather charming conman who links the two books. In The Twelve Chairs, Bender collaborates with one Ippolit Matveevich (“Kisa,” roughly “Kitty”) Vorobyaninov, to chase down a set of upholstered dining room chairs. One chair is stuffed with family jewels. In The Golden Calf, Bender and three accomplices head out to find a millionaire who hides his wealth using the combination of a suitcase, train station baggage check, and a low-paying job.

The Ilf and Petrov marathon highlighted the similarities and differences between the two books. Both are funny and both contain numerous tangents, many of which don’t relate much to the plotting but reveal aspects of culture. My favorite, in The Twelve Chairs, addresses the Russian phenomenon of not opening many doors, even at crowded places like the circus. I laughed out loud: How many times was I part of a crowd of people trying to squeeze through one open door, while several others remained locked?! The authors also list some door signs, including “Своим посещением ты мешаешь занятому человеку” – I like this one best literally: “With your visit you bother a busy person.” Words to remember.

Though the humor is similar in the two books, The Golden Calf is far more biting and politically risky. On the lighter side, there are American tourists searching for самогон (home brew) recipes during prohibition. There is also ample commentary on the Soviet regime, including one minor character who refuses to work toward socialism, preferring to hole up in a сумашедший дом (“crazy house,” psychiatric hospital) because he has personal freedom there. Ostap Bender himself yearns for Rio de Janeiro.

I’m hypersensitive to narrative devices, so the biggest difference between the books felt formal: The Twelve Chairs, with its ongoing hunt for furniture dispersed all over the landscape, strings together adventures and escapades about looking for one or two chairs at a time. Everything does fit together in Chairs but The Golden Calf’s story line feels more linear and cohesive, with Bender and his small band following one person’s trail. Plus it includes the Department of Horn and Hoof, one of my favorite fictional business ventures.

I enjoyed The Golden Calf’s other Biblical and political references, plus the portrayal of the difficulties of possessing wealth during the NEP era. The satire struck me as more historically rooted and more enduringly relevant than what I found in The Twelve Chairs. Yes, I liked both books and laughed at little things in Chairs, like the conversation with the naked engineer or the absurdity of Bender calling Vorobyaninov “Kisa.” But I laughed hardest at comments on more serious subjects. One of my favorite passages in the books is at the beginning of Chapter XVIII of Golden Calf, when Bender discusses his feelings about religion. He starts by saying “Я сам склонен к обману и шантажу…” (“I myself am inclined toward deception and blackmail…”) Like I said, I kind of miss the guy.

Translation Note: Readers looking for The Golden Calf in English translation will have two new choices later this year. I’ve already mentioned Open Letter’s upcoming release, translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson. Galleys are still available for online previews here. I learned on Saturday, at a reading of Life Stories, that Russian Life Books is preparing a translation by Anne O. Fisher, who also translated texts for Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip (samples on Google books here). Open Letter calls their translation The Golden Calf; RIS calls theirs The Little Golden Calf.

Photo: AllenHansen, via Wikipedia

Ilf and Petrov on Amazon

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Bookshelf Hits the Terrible Twos

This is it: today Lizok’s Bookshelf enters the Terrible Twos! Though my reading habits have taken on a life of their own – I never, never thought I’d crave so much contemporary Russian fiction – I don’t anticipate any blog-based temper tantrums or other forms of hysteria, mass or minor.

The best part of blog birthdays is looking back at the last year, at trends in readership and a few of the interesting search terms that brought visitors to the blog in the first place…

The vast majority of you are based in the United States, but many of you live in the U.K., Russia, and Canada. Quite a number of you have left comments, e-mailed me, or linked to my posts. I’ve even met two or three of you in person. I love to hear from readers about their interests and biases, so please write if there’s a book, writer, or trend you think I should know about.

Several of you have asked if I think American readers are interested in Russian contemporary fiction. Yes, I think they are, not just because Americans ask for reading recommendations but because the list of most requested pages on the blog show the interest. Though “The Overcoat” is still my most popular post, other top pages include posts about Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Shtain, Vladimir Makanin’s Asan, and nominations for the Russian Booker. (I discount the popularity of the 2009 National Bestseller long list post because it gets a lot of hits with search terms that include 2009 and bestseller, but not Russian.)

Popular pages on classics are Kuprin’s “Garnet Bracelet” and Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (The Devils). Dovlatov’s The Compromise, thank goodness, hasn’t lost its appeal, either, and the pre-revolutionary list of Top Ten Fiction Hits of Russian Literature is also an attraction.

As for search terms:

Can a pregnant woman eat gefilte fish?

I don’t know. But this question makes me glad the pregnant woman in Oh, Shabbat! (here) eats fried potatoes instead of gefilte fish.

Russian literature to read traveling.

I usually like either a short story anthology or a good, thick novel. I once sent an election observer off to Belarus with Master and Margarita, which he found suitably quirky for a long stay. Another thought: if you’re going to Russia, bring Pushkin. You’re guaranteed to find a statue, street, museum, or other landmark that honors him, and most Russians should be glad to know you read the writer known as “наше всё” (“our everything”).

As for anthologies, the Viking Portable Library Russian Readers (19th century and 20th century) provide good selections of poetry and prose, including novellas and a few surprises, though they also contain excerpts, which I don’t like. For something truly contemporary, try the new Rasskazy or Life Stories collections. Penguin’s Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, edited by Robert Chandler, brings classic and contemporary into one book. If bilingual is your thing, there’s the classic Russian Stories, edited by Gleb Struve. That book includes Gogol’s “The Nose,” which you have to read if you’re going to St. Petersburg.

Clockwork Orange vs. The Slynx

A Clockwork Orange. Though I admit I haven’t read it since college. (I didn’t like The Slynx very much.)

I read Russian novels.

As do I... and I can’t wait to head south tomorrow to stock up on books for the winter! And maybe eat a cupcake.

It’s been a very busy fall for both work and reading, so I’m a little behind on my blogging… But I’ll be writing soon about The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf, plus Rasskazy and Life Stories. Not to mention the slim choices for favorite writers whose names begin with the letter E.

For now, I send an огромное спасибо – huge thank you to everyone who visits and reads the Bookshelf. I appreciate all the encouragement you have provided over the last two years!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Prizes: Russian Booker Short List & Yasnaya Polyana Winners

The 2009 Russian Booker Prize short list is in! The finalists:

Elena KatishonokЖили-были старик со старухой (Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife) (excerpt)

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

Aleksandr TerekhovКаменный мост (The Stone Bridge)

Boris KhazanovВчерашняя вечность (Yesterday’s Eternity)

Elena Chizhova – Время женщин (A Time of/for Women)

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

The most notable omissions from the short list are Andrei Gelasimov’s Степные боги (Steppe Gods) (previous post), which already won the 2009 National Bestseller, and Vladimir Makanin’s Асан (Asan) (previous post), the 2008 Big Book winner. has additional background here. Among the information: all the books have history themes and one judge says he had 11 names on this preliminary “short” list but the award’s rules stipulate that “short” means six. The winner of the 500,000 tax-free ruble prize will be announced on December 3, 2009.

Yasnaya Polyana award winners were announced on Monday, and they have a distinct northern feel. Vladimir Lichutin won the “Contemporary Classic” award. I wasn’t familiar with him until Monday… but quickly learned that his historical trilogy Раскол (The Schism) has received a lot of praise. One example: Vladimir Bondarenko’s list of 50 of the best twentieth-century Russian books includes The Schism. Bondarenko’s description mentions northern mysticism and calls the book a combination of fact, myth, legend, and мистерия, a Russian word that can refer to either secret rituals (usually pagan, I believe) or medieval religious drama… I think we call the latter miracle-play.

(A brief aside: Thank you to Languagehat for sending me the link to the Bondarenko list – it includes a lot of interesting picks. Some, like Master and Margarita and The Petty Demon, are old favorites, but others have stood on my shelves, unread, for too long. Those include Fadeev’s Разгром (The Rout) and Aleksei Tolstoy’s Петр Первый (Peter the Great).)

Yasnaya Polyana’s “21st century. Outstanding Work of Contemporary Prose” award went to Vasilii Golovanov for Остров, или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий (The Island or Justification of Pointless Journeys), a nonfiction book that is evidently difficult to describe… terms like essay, philosophy, and exploration all pop up. Even a quick glance at the first page seems to confirm all those, as Golovanov mentions tundra and a chilly hotel room in Naryan-Mar.

This Российская газета article has more on the Yasnaya Polyana awards.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Notable New Translations: Life Stories, Scary Fairy Tales, Resurrection, and Belkin

Late summer and early fall brought a varied crop of translations:

-The anthology Life Stories, published by Russian Information Services, translates most of the short stories in a Russian collection that came out in Russia earlier this year: Книга, ради которой объединились писатели, объединить которых невозможно (hmm, roughly: A Book for the Sake of Which Writers Impossible to Get Together Got Together).

Like Tin House’s Rasskazy (previous posts), Life Stories contains stories by contemporary Russian fiction writers… but the writer rosters differ greatly. Rasskazy writers are all 40 or under, and many of them are relatively unknown. Though the Life Stories writers aren’t exactly old timers, the collection includes big names like Evgenii Grishkovets, Vladimir Voinovich, Dina Rubina, Vladimir Makanin, and Viktor Pelevin. Only one author, Zakhar Prilepin, has a story in each book; I began Life Stories with his “Grandmother, Wasps, Watermelon” (Бабушка, осы, арбуз), translated by Deborah Hoffman. Life Stories also includes Alexei Bayer’s translation of Andrei Gelasimov’s “Жанна” (“Joan”), which I wrote about in this previous post.

I’ll write more about the collection later this fall but want to add that Life Stories is not just an anthology. Like its Russian counterpart, the book’s sales benefit the Vera Hospice Charity Fund and hospice care in Moscow. All profits go to the fund, and the writers and translators waived their fees and royalties.

Also: There will be a Life Stories reading on Saturday, October 17 at 4-6 p.m., at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. (PDF of event information)

-A new book of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, collects stories translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. For a sample, read “The Fountain House,” which appeared in The New Yorker this summer. There is also a Petrushevskaya story in Life Stories: “Joe Juan” (“Джо Жуан”) translated by Lise Brody.

-Tolstoy’s Resurrection, I learned from the Literary Saloon, has been retranslated by Anthony Briggs and published by Penguin Classics. I, too, found the book curious when I read it several years ago. As I wrote in handouts for a “Forgotten Classics” literature workshop, a lot of Resurrection is fairly obvious, but, thanks to stylistic and thematic differences and similarities, the book should be interesting for people who have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin also recently reappeared, thanks to Melville House, in a translation by Josh Billings, a Portlander. I’ve read these stories enough times that the words in Josh’s translation feel familiar, even in English. That’s a bit eerie but also very welcome because his translations feel clean and modern, just as Pushkin’s language does. (previous post on The Belkin Tales)

Life Stories: Original Works by Russian Writers on Amazon

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales on Amazon