Monday, November 30, 2009

Notable New Translations: What 2009 Brought

It’s the season for year-end lists so I thought I’d take a look at translations that brought Russian fiction into English translation for the first time in 2009. I always enjoy acknowledging translators and their publishers, and the list is so varied it should provide some fun ideas for personal reading or holiday gifts. I began by looking at the translation database from Three Percent (available here, updated here on 2 December), then added a few items that weren’t on that list…

Those of you who visit this blog regularly can probably divine that I think 2009’s most exciting releases are anthologies of contemporary Russian short stories: Rasskazy, from Tin House, and Life Stories from Russian Information Services. (All posts: Rasskazy Life Stories) Both books are treats because their varied voices, literary devices, and topics form a tremendous mosaic. I’ll be writing a full post about Rasskazy within the next week or so and hope to get to Life Stories in December.

Several more of Boris Akunin’s novels (previous post) made it into English this year, thanks to translator Andrew Bromfield: Pelagia and the Red Cockerel (Random House), plus two of Akunin’s Erast Fandorin books, Coronation and She Lover of Death (imports in the US; Weidenfeld & Nicholson). I love Akunin’s Fandorin novels, and She Lover of Death is a sentimental favorite because it was the first book I read when I got back into reading Russian fiction about five years ago. Bromfield is prolific: his translation of Andrei Rubanov’s Do Time Get Time, from Old Street Publishing, came out in May, too.

Last weekend’s post about Anna Starobinets (here) mentioned her story collection An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin and published by Hesperus Press, as well as Liudmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, and published by Penguin. (Edit: Jessa Crispin's "A World of Novels: Picks for Best Foreign Fiction," on NPR.org, includes Petrushevskaya's book and links to the title story, which actually carries the modest title "Revenge.")

Northwestern University Press brought out two new Russian titles in 2009: Gaito Gazdanov’s Night Roads, translated by Justin Doherty, and Ivan Shcheglov’s novella The Dacha Husband, translated by Michael Katz. I’m familiar with Gazdanov – I just finished his atmospheric Призрак Александра Вольфа (The Ghost of Alexander Wolf) – but Shcheglov is a new name for me. Another writer I haven’t read is Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, whom Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov translated for the (partially) new collection from New York Review Books, Memories of the Future. (previous post)

Amanda Love Darragh, who won this year’s Rossica Prize for translating Maria Galina’s Iramifications, translated A Jewish God in Paris, a trio of novellas by Mikhail Levitin; Glas published both books. Polly Gannon’s translation of Max Frei’s The Stranger (Overlook) brings the first book of the popular, magical-sounding science fiction series Labyrinths of Echo into English. I’ve never read Frei but have the second book in the series – I just never seem to start with the first book.

I should add that there are several ongoing sources of translated Russian stories and excerpts, too: Rossica, from Academia Rossica, and Readings/Чтения, from Russian Information Services. Glas has also published a number of anthologies of translations, and the Glas Web site includes many samples.

A slightly off-topic note about a book that had already been translated: late fall 2009 brought two new translations of Ilf and Petrov’s Золотой телёнок: The Golden Calf from Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson (Open Letter) and The Little Golden Calf from Anne O. Fisher (Russian Information Services). Either Calf would make a fine holiday gift. I haven’t (and won’t!) compare the quality of the translations but have observed, based on my online preview of the Open Letter book and an advance copy of the book from Russian Information Services, that the books show clear differences in philosophy.

I’m not trying to be diplomatic when I say that I don’t honestly know which one I’d choose if I were buying a gift (likely to happen soon) or planning a first-time reading of the book. On the one hand, I like Open Letter’s philosophy of minimalist notes. Notes distract me because I compulsively look to see if I’m missing something. On the other hand, cultural differences mean notes will help readers understand the book, so the RIS book’s detailed historical introduction, hundreds of notes, plus two appendices are pretty useful and, yes, fun to read. Interestingly enough, Complete Review’s review calls the Open Letter book’s explanatory notes “a very limited and almost random grab-bag: more (or none) would have been preferable.” All that aside, I often like to say that the best translation is the one you’re most likely to read and love, so compare the first pages for yourself on Open Letter’s site or Look Inside from Amazon.

Disclosure: I received complementary copies of three books and one journal mentioned in this post: Rasskazy, Life Stories, The Little Golden Calf, and Чтения/Readings. I always welcome notifications about new translations.

Rasskazy on Amazon
Life Stories on Amazon
Boris Akunin on Amazon
Do Time Get Time on Amazon
An Awkward Age on Amazon
There Once Lived a Woman... on Amazon
Night Roads on Amazon
The Dacha Husband on Amazon
Memories of the Future on Amazon
A Jewish God in Paris on Amazon
The Stranger (The Labyrinths of Echo) on Amazon
The Golden Calf on Amazon
The Little Golden Calf on Amazon

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Yuzefovich Wins 2009 Big Book Award

Now that the turkey’s in the oven, here’s a quick bit of Russian literary news for American Thanksgiving: Leonid Iuzefovich (Leonid Yuzefovich) won the Big Book award for Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Dwarfs or Cranes and Pygmies). The book is online in Russian (beginning middle end), and an English-language excerpt is available on translator Marian Schwartz’s Web site (here). The Life Stories anthology contains a story by Iozefovich, “The Storm” (“Гроза”), also translated by Schwartz. Iozefovich won second place in the Big Book readers’ vote.

The Big Book jury awarded second prize to Aleksandr Terekhov for Каменный мост (The Stone Bridge). Leonid Zorin took third place for Скверный глобус (The Wretched Globe).

Andrei Baldin won first place among readers for Протяжение точки (For some reason, I like calling this one The Space of a Dot). The text of the book is available in html and iPaper formats here. Readers awarded third place to Mariam Petrosian for Дом, в котором... (The House in Which…).

Boris Vasil’ev won a special award (“за честь и достоинство” – “for honor and merit/virtue”). A list of Vasil’ev’s work on Russian Wikipedia shows a number of historical and World War 2 novels, many of which have been adapted for film. I have one of his historical novels on my shelf...

It’s time to make apple pie -- Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who celebrates the holiday!

Life Stories on Amazon

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Folk Tales and Fear: Starobinets’s 3/9

Once upon a time last weekend, I picked up Anna Starobinets’s Убежище 3/9 (Sanctuary 3/9) because I needed a long, long rest from Aleksandr Terekhov’s tedious, heavy, portentous combination of fact and fiction known as Каменный мост (The Stone Bridge)…

In Starobinets’s novel I found scary fun, a nightmarish, multigenre conglomeration of human fears. The book is packed with fairy tale themes, bits of apocalyptic thinking, and contemporary realities. I think the book’s characters, many of whom are archetypal and/or nameless, come to life thanks to two factors: Starobinets’s understanding of the psychology of fear and her matter-of-fact language.

To make a long story short: An accident in a Cave of Horrors carnival ride puts a small boy in a coma. His mother, Masha (Maria), is a photographer; his father, Joseph, is a cardshark. They split up. The boy ends up in an institution for disabled children. The parents end up in separate European countries, where hexes change them into scary forms. Like a spider. Meanwhile, doubles of some characters inhabit a parallel and rather sinister fairy tale-like world. And there’s more: A Web site recommends moving to Altai to avoid the dual disasters of a polar shift and a second sun hitting earth – these aren’t so different from the predictions of 2012 disasters that NASA tells us are a hoax. (Aside: What scares me most about these predictions is that NASA receives so many 2012 questions that it felt it had to make its “Ask an Astrobiologist” pages and video.)

3/9’s chapters contain a myriad of other themes and things related to folk stories and fears: wolves, strange dreams, forests with no escape, impossible choices, vampires, hexes and hypnotism, incest, abandonment of disabled children, edible houses, needles, scary carnival rides, someone whose name sounds like Lucifer, and dual realities. There’s even one of my worst fears: a zombified president. Starobinets draws in story book characters, too, particularly Hansel, Gretel, Ivan the Fool (this one undergoes trepanation, ouch), Sleeping Beauty, Masha who loses things, and Baba Yaga. Needless to say, Propp’s fairy tale functions are seen in full force.

I rarely have patience for such crowded, jumpy novels but Starobinets is a good enough storyteller that her frequent shifts between characters and subplots build suspense because she creates eerie ripples that move back and forth between her real and unreal worlds. My biggest problem was putting the book down at night. And slowing my reading enough to remember who’s who. 3/9 isn’t a mindless suspense novel, though: I didn’t finish and wish a time warp could return lost reading hours.

Instead I went back to the beginning and paged through the book, looking again at my margin notes and the strange borders between Starobinets’s invented worlds and her borrowings from storybooks. Rarely have I so enjoyed contemplating primal fears and the ways we convey them, over and over in books and stories, to find a strange kind of refuge.

Bonus One! The Rasskazy anthology edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker includes a short story by Starobinets, “Rules,” about a boy with some quietly creepy superstitions and compulsions. According to Rasskazy, “Rules” also appears in An Awkward Age, Hesperus Press’s book of Hugh Aplin’s translations of Starobinets’s stories. U.S. release date is December 1, 2009.

Bonus Two! Today’s New York Times Book Review included Liesl Schillinger’s very positive review of There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, Keith Gessen and Anna Summers’s translations of stories by Liudmilla Petrushevskaya. (review here) Though I respect her, Petrushevskaya has never been one of my favorite writers, so I enjoyed reading critic Lev Danilkin’s rather humorous comparison of Petrushevskaya and Starobinets in Danilkin’s review of 3/9. After writing that he sees Petrushevskaya in Starobinets’s female character with the Lucifer-like name, he adds that Starobinets is the Petrushevskaya of a new generation, a Euro-Petrushevskaya.

Danilkin concludes his comparison with this: “Петрушевскую читать жутко и муторно, Старобинец – жутко и весело.” (Roughly: “It’s terrifying and dark/heavy/unpleasant to read Petrushevskaya but terrifying and fun to read Starobinets.”) In case you’re curious, Danilkin goes on to say he thinks 3/9 isn’t an ideal debut novel because, summed up, it’s overcrowded. He’s right but I can forgive a lot in a book this interesting.


Starobinets's An Awkward Age
Rasskazy on Amazon
Petrushevskaya's Scary Fairy Tales

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Erofeev and Esenin

I’ve been struggling over the small pool of letter “E” writers for a some time, hoping more contenders for favorites would emerge from some foggy compartment of my reading memory. Увы, alas, nothing, though there are some worthy writers:

Though Venedikt Erofeev may not be as big a favorite as some of my picks for previous letters, his Москва-Петушки (Moskva-Petushki or Moscow to the End of the Line) is a Soviet-era underground classic that has cult followings in and outside Russia. I wrote a bit about this short novel in a past post. What can I say? It’s a book about life and drinking (or drinking and life?), and its motifs live on. I felt them particularly strongly when I read Vladimir Makanin’s Андеграунд, или герой нашего времени (Underground or A Hero of Our Time) (previous post), plus several theaters have adapted the novella for stage.

On the lyrical side, I’ve always had a fascination with Sergei Esenin’s poetry. I guess I probably identify with his combination of rural and urban themes. And his physical and emotional wanderings. Esenin died in 1925 but he retains a place in Russian cultural life: Russian TV ran a miniseries about him in 2005, singer Aleksandr Novikov has made several albums of songs based on his poetry, and there is a Esenin Café in Moscow. Then there is this: last month’s online auction of items related to Esenin’s last days. The lot contained the rope with which he hanged himself, a lock of hair that his mother cut off his body, and a portrait of Esenin in his coffin. The items evidently sold for a little over two million rubles, but part of me wishes this story were not true because if feels so ghoulish.

The E-List for Future Reading: I’ve long felt a little guilty for not reading Venedikt Erofeev’s play Вальпургиева ночь (Walpurgis Night). Then there is Viktor Erofeev’s Русская красавица (Russian Beauty), which has also stood unread on my shelf since the early ‘90s. I just never seem to get to it. I’m sure I’ll read more from Mikhail Elizarov after enjoying his Библиотекарь (The Librarian) (previous post) this past summer -- several story collections are available but I’m hoping for another novel.

Please let me know who I’ve have missed!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Всякая всячина -- Odds and Ends

A few links and bits of news:

1. The Новая словесность (НОС) award -- New Literature but NOSE in the short version – released its short list yesterday:

Andrei Astvatsaturov -- Люди в голом (People in the Nude). According to this review on OpenSpace.ru, the book begins as traditional and entertaining autobiographical prose of a Soviet intelligentsia childhood. With age, though, the main character becomes sexist, cynical, cowardly, bilious, unsympathetic and, yes, difficult to identify with.

Tat’iana Bocharova -- Новочеркасск: кровавый полдень (Novocherkassk: Bloody Noon). Nonfiction about a riot over economic conditions that resulted in deaths in Novocherkassk in June 1962. (Wikipedia summary. Time magazine report from October 19, 1962)

Lev GurskiiРоман Арбитман (Roman Arbitman). A “parodic biography” of Roman Arbitman, allegedly Russia’s second president. Yes, there’s even a scandal: Molodaia gvardiia publishing house is asking that copies of Roman Arbitman be destroyed because the cover makes Roman look like part of MG’s famous “Life of Remarkable People” series. That’s a little silly: the book’s cover doesn’t have the famous letters (ЖЗЛ) that identify the series, though I have to admit the design had me fooled at first when I clicked on this article about the book.

Sergei Nosov Тайная жизнь петербургских памятников (The Secret Lives of Petersburg Monuments). Essays about Petersburg monuments. Winner of the National Bestseller “best book” vote from bloggers (mentioned here).

Andrei Stepanov -- Сказки не про людей (Tales Not About People). The publisher’s blurb about these stories says they are about the nature of people but most of the characters are animals. The blurb also calls the book a “редкий жанровый коктейль (rare genre cocktail) blending language play, fables, and magical stories, among others.

Elena EltangКамменые клены (The Stone Maples). So close but yet so far: I held this book in my hand at a Russian bookstore a few weeks ago when I asked the proprietor for Vladimir Terekhov’s Каменный мост (The Stone Bridge), a stone novel that didn’t make the NOSE short list. I’m reading Terekhov’s long (800+ pages) book now. But no, I didn’t buy Stone Maples.

(Previous post on НОС/NOSE)

2. The Guardian has been running top 10 lists lately. A September list inventoried “Helen Rappaport’s top 10 books on Lenin” (!), and yesterday’s covered “Howard Jacobson’s top 10 novels of sexual jealousy.” The latter list includes Lev Tolstoy’s Крейцерова соната (The Kreutzer Sonata) (previous post) and Fedor Dostoevsky’s Вечный муж (The Eternal Husband). I’ve been meaning to read The Eternal Husband for months...

The Guardian’s Books Blog recently published Hannah Davies’s “The unknown Booker prize,” a piece about Western interest (or lack thereof?) in contemporary Russian literature.

3. Finally, I was sad to see that Esther Hautzig, author of the young adult book The Endless Steppe, died recently. (NY Times obituary) The Endless Steppe was a favorite book when I was a child: it tells the story of a family’s life in Soviet labor camps during World War II. I read the book numerous times; it was one of the first I read about Russia.

4. (Next-Day Addition) This item from the Literary Saloon clued me in to the new Azeri National Book Award. Two articles (new story) (interview) offer conflicting information on whether all nominees must be written in Azeri. In any case, the interview, with the award's founder, mentions the possibility of translations into Russian and French. I visited Azerbaijan four or five times during the '90s and would love to read some Azeri fiction. Azerbaijan's most famous literary figure is probably 19th-century writer Mirza Fatali Akhundov.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ivanov’s Geographer Finds His Own Way


Aleksei Ivanov’s Географ глобус пропил (Geographer Drank Away His Globe, taken literally) is, to borrow from Vidal Sassoon’s Wash & Go TV ads in ‘90s Russia, “два романа в одном флаконе” – two novels in one bottle.
And let me count the ways… Emotionally, this novel about Viktor Sluzhkin, a young man in 1990s Perm’ who becomes a geography teacher because he needs a job, is both bitter and sweet, without either ipecac or saccharine. Genre-wise, I’d vote for a late bloomer’s coming-of-age novel and a comedy of morals. For the former, Sluzhkin make realizations about himself and his place in the world, for the latter, there is plenty of humorous melodrama about relationships, where love interests rarely coincide.
Thanks to my incessant focus on the mechanics of fiction, Geographer’s stylistic two-in-one struck me most. The majority of the novel is written in the third-person, but Sluzhkin narrates a hundred-page chapter, “Оба берега реки” (“Both Sides of the River”). The chapter, in which Sluzhkin describes his river trip in the taiga with some students, comes near the end of the book. The trip, with its Greek chorus of temptations and dangers, is every parent’s nightmare: brushes with the elements, vodka drinking, and a teacher (yes, that would be Mr. Sluzhkin) infatuated with a student he wants to “take” right on primeval damp mother earth.
Despite the hazards of nature, drunk locals, and a problematic vessel, I found the wilderness trip almost dull because Sluzhkin’s narrative voice felt flat and detail-oriented compared with the lightly sardonic humor of the third-person storyteller, who resumed duties for the end of the book. I admit many of my biases were at work: I hated Lord of the Flies, never went on Outward Bound, and think first-person narrative often severely limits the author’s ability to dole out details about the narrator.
Yes, I’m a selfish reader who hates losing an engaging narrator for a quarter of a book but I’ll admit Sluzhkin’s story serves a purpose: the trip through the wilderness is also a journey through topics of Russian culture and history – the group finds sites like an abandoned, profaned church and an old prison camp. I’d already figured out the history bit, but Sluzhkin confirmed it: “Мы проплыли по этим рекам – от Семичеловечьей до Рассохи – как сквозь судьбу этой земли, -- от древних капищ до концлагерей.” (“We floated along those rivers, from Semichelovech’ia to Rassokha, as if through the fate of our country, from ancient pagan temples to concentration camps.”)
More important, the wilderness chapter is Sluzhkin’s journey. He is, after all, an untrained geography teacher who navigates, not always successfully, throughout the book’s journeys. The guy even invents his own constellations. After contemplating the history lesson of the trip, he reflects on his transgressions and betrayals but feels at peace, soon equating pain in his cold hands to the pain of life. I think that combination of calm and pain, in the real or metaphorical wilderness, is the core of the novel. The Russian wilderness, with its emptiness, river rapids, trees, snow, and storms, conveys it, too. It’s fitting that the book’s last word is одиночество: loneliness or solitude.
Ironically, I’ve focused on the portion of the book I liked least. I enjoyed the first 250 pages far more, with stories of Sluzhkin’s Russian Sweathogs (one uses urine to moisten the classroom rag for cleaning the blackboard) and personal problems, many of which involve his wife and other women. I particularly loved the passages about Brezhnev’s death, which flash back to Sluzhkin’s high school days, showing him as something of a misfit. Among other things, he gets caught peering through the window of the women’s banya and mistakenly gives his teacher a tape cued to ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” instead of funereal music for a Brezhnev memorial ceremony.
Geographer, the novel, is a little like Sluzhkin the character. Sluzhkin knows he’s imperfect and Geographer isn’t my perfect novel, but I enjoyed their company and was sorry to finish the book. This is my favorite kind of fiction: enjoyable, vivid, and intelligent without being pretentious. As a northerner, I’m probably predisposed to like the одиночество (as solitude) message. I should add that I have tremendous respect for the fact that Ivanov wrote the book when he was young: he was born in 1969 and he wrote Geographer in 1995.
Translation Watch: This literary agency reports that Geographer has been translated into French and Dutch, with rights sold for Lithuanian. Another agency shows that Bulgarian rights have also been sold.
P.S. This is my first post with “Translation Watch.” I’ve also added a new tag, “available in translation(s)” that I’ll use for any books I review that have been translated into English or other languages. I’ll add tags to old posts, though it may take some time.
Globe image from Izabelha, via Stock.xchng.