Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Irina Grekova’s Widows and Orphans

Вдовий пароход (The Ship of Widows), Irina Grekova’s short 1979 novel about widows living in a communal apartment during and after World War 2, is far more enjoyable than it probably sounds. Grekova somehow manages to balance the nastiness and small kindnesses of everyday life and avoid excessive sweetness or bitterness. For this optimist, the result is a strangely satisfying book that emphasizes what I think I’ll call equivocal redemption and the ups and downs of interdependence. (I won’t include too much detail, in case you want to read the book.)

Grekova begins the novel with first-person narration from Olga, whose husband was killed at the front. Olga’s mother and daughter die during World War 2 bombing in Moscow. Olga is severely injured but recovers enough to walk with a cane and use her musical education working at an orphanage. She receives new housing in the communal apartment, nicknamed the ship for widows, and develops her closest relationship with Anfisa. Anfisa gives birth to a son, Vadim, whom she conceives outside her marriage while serving as a nurse during the war.

Grekova supplements Olga’s first-person narration with third-person accounts of happenings in the apartment, giving the book both immediacy and background details without a soap opera feel… even as Vadim grows increasingly recalcitrant. Vadim is a superfluous boy for the communal apartment era: he is likened to Byron, loves to call things lies, and lazes around and smokes when he’s unhappy. He’s a dark cloud with a superiority complex, and he gets lousy grades.

Anfisa raises Vadim mostly as a single mother: though her husband returns and treats Vadim well, the husband is not around for long. Still, Vadim’s upbringing is almost as communal as the apartment: the widows help at times, and Anfisa takes Vadim to work, switching from the orphanage to kindergarten as he grows. Grekova’s treatment of these aspects of World War 2 demography and reality – the shortage of men, the influx of orphans, the lack of childcare – feels more like statement of fact than complaining, despite the very clear and painful picture of hardships.

I’ve seen Grekova categorized as an urban writer. The Ship of Widows has a Moscow feel, but it was the psychology of the characters and communal living that drew me in. Yes, it’s absolutely obvious that conflicts arise because opposing sides all believe they are right, but somehow that idea felt fresh in Olga’s telling: she knows she’s as guilty as her apartment mates. There is also a discussion of grief, in which Anfisa describes Olga’s grief as “благородное, без стыда” (“noble, without shame”).

Though Grekova seems to have chosen her characters to represent various segments of society – one widow is religious, another is a former singer, and so on – she first creates and treats them as people rather than symbols, ensuring their dialogue and situations feel real rather than overly symbolic or relentlessly dreary.

The Ship of Widows is available in Cathy Porter’s English translation, from Northwestern University Press.

The Ship of Widows on Amazon

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Yuzefovich’s Cranes and Dwarfs: Pretenders and Historical Cycles

It’s easy to see how Leonid Yuzefovich’s novel Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Dwarfs or Cranes and Pygmies) was big enough in scope to win the 2009 Big Book award. Yuzefovich covers big themes from Russian culture and history including pretenders, spirituality, times of trouble, and a human tendency for endless conflict. All in 476 very readable pages.

The predominant story line of Cranes and Dwarfs is set in a place I knew well: 1993 Moscow. Yuzefovich chronicles the struggles of “victims of shock therapy” to find new lives in post-Soviet Russia. Shubin, a writer, connects the novel’s disparate centuries and characters: he knows Zhokhov, a scheming Russian businessman, and in 2004 meets Baatar, a scheming Mongolian businessman. Shubin also researches and writes about two historical pretenders to the Russian throne, offering articles to sketchy journals whose editors are literary pretenders. Inanimate objects – a starting pistol, cheap clothing, and plastic souvenirs – try to pass themselves off as authentic, too.

Zhokhov, whose name means “rogue,” gets more ink than his pretender counterparts in other eras and locales. We observe Zhokhov in the middle of various bungled deals, and Yuzefovich provides particularly painful details of his attempt to make a bundle of money selling europium – it’s clear Zhokhov will find a way to fail. In the midst of these business ventures, Zhokhov meets a woman, a waitress at a rest home, and passes himself off as the illegitimate son of the owner of a neighboring dacha. In the background, ‘90s Moscow is ’90s Moscow: we find Herbalife, street vendors, payphones in the pre-mobile age, suffering scientific institutes, and lines like this: “Что такое бог? Единое информационное поле планеты.” (“What is God? The planet’s unified information platform.”)

As Zhokhov attempts his deals, Russia is hurtling toward the infamous October Events, which involved political pretending and very real tanks firing at the Russian White House. Zhokhov, of course, gets mixed up in that, too, and his situation is all the worse because he is carrying a painted portrait of Bill Clinton. If this sounds too ridiculous for fiction, please trust me, it fits the era. And it feels believable because Yuzefovich incorporates pointed humor that avoids crankiness, and creates characters who feel real because they are quirky and odd without being cute and contrived.

The combination of reality and invention carries over to the book’s structure, too. Shubin writes nonfiction (mostly) about historical figures, making him a literary device who produces documentary material. I particularly enjoyed his accounts of Timoshka Ankudinov, a 17th-century would-be royal who travels Europe using the name Prince Shuisky. It is Ankudinov who first brings up the cranes and dwarfs theme, describing how both sides perpetuate violence and ill will. The crane-dwarf struggle pops up frequently in world mythologies, according to this paper (in PDF), and Yuzefovich includes five lines from Homer’s Iliad that refer to it, too.

Endless conflicts spill into the novel’s other plots and subplots, whether businessmen or governments fill in for birds and little people who struggle over turf. Yuzefovich portrays cycles of violence and opportunism, though Baatar offers Mongolians up as peaceful people, at least post-Genghis Khan.

Cranes and Dwarfs survived a less-than-ideal reading: I had to put the book down for more than a week when my head, inflamed with cold or flu, couldn’t handle books. But Yuzefovich’s situations and characters remained so vivid that I lost little momentum. My biggest complaint about the book is pretty petty: a few of the Mongolian descriptions toward the end felt a bit too anthropological (or pedagogical?) for my taste. By contrast, the landscape of 1993 Moscow felt completely organic, perhaps because the details and inhabitants are so familiar that they create instant atmosphere without glosses. There were even a couple mentions of Yegor Gaidar who, by coincidence, died as I was reading the book, resurrecting even more memories of post-Soviet Russia.

Bonus! The Life Stories collection from Russian Information Services includes Yuzefovich’s story Гроза (“The Storm”). The story combines a fifth-grade class, a kindly teacher, and a guest speaker’s lecture about traffic safety with an approaching thunderstorm. “The Storm,” like Cranes and Dwarfs, combines humor with life-and-death seriousness. I’ve read about half the stories in Life Stories, and it’s one of my favorites so far. Marian Schwartz translated “The Storm” as well as this excerpt from the first chapter Cranes and Dwarfs. Cranes and Dwarfs is online in Russian: beginning middle end

Image: (per Wikipedia) 16th century drawing by Olaus Magnus, of cranes and dwarfs fighting in Northern Sweden.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Three on a Fuzzy Head -- Gazdanov, Kabakov, Ilf & Petrov

My head’s still pretty fuzzy from a cold but that feels perfect for writing up descriptions of three works I could describe, in one word each, as dreamy, nightmarish, and feverish. A bonus: the first two are available in English translation, and there’s something similar for the third…

Dreamy. Gaito Gazdanov’s Призрак Александра Вольфа (The Specter of Alexander Wolf) begins with the first-person narrator discussing his only murder. Events of the Russian Civil War connect with his later life in Paris in strange ways, resulting in a short novel that reads like Existentialism Lite and looks at life, death, duality, and fate.

The odd thing is that, despite philosophy that felt obvious to me, I thoroughly enjoyed Gazdanov’s clear, elegant writing and the places and states of mind he describes. He also includes strange little gifts of fate: a wind that carries a life-saving sound and a boxing match where the narrator meets his enigmatic girlfriend. I suspect that my impression of dreaminess may come in part from the fact that I usually read in Russian about Russia, not Paris.

Nightmarish. It was a bit of a shock to the system to follow the velvety writing of Alexander Wolf with Aleksandr Kabakov’s Невозвращенец (No Return), a gritty, chaotic 1988 novella that uses a researcher’s time travel to look at unrest in 1993 Moscow. I’m a sucker for dystopias, so I enjoyed some of the bits Kazakov throws in: I particularly liked a scene at a speakeasy of sorts that serves home brew made from Hungarian peas. (They must be Globus!) There are also repeated but failed attempts to blow up the Pushkin statue, strange goings-on in night Metro trains, and warnings about the intelligentsia being sick and in need of an operation. I thought the most telling lines of the piece, though, involved the narrator staying low to the ground in danger, sometimes crawling on all fours, like an animal. As dystopias go, I much prefer Makanin’s Лаз (Escape Hatch) (previous post) or Platonov’s Котлован (Foundation Pit), (previous post) but No Return made quite a splash when it was published, thanks to its visions of Russia’s future.

Feverish. When I finished Ilya Il’f and Evgenii Petrov’s 461-page Одноэтажная Америка (One-Storey America), my one nonfiction book for the year, I felt almost like I’d really ridden thousands miles around the U.S. in 1935-1936 with Il’f, Petrov, and their escorts, Mr. and Mrs. Adams (real name: Tron). The mysterious Becky Adams drives. So many places, people, and drugstore breakfasts! During the two-month trip, they take hitchhikers into their Ford and hear stories of hard-luck and hope. They witness incompetent bullfights in Mexico, visit American progressives, see segregation, speed down smooth roads, experience American service, and meet Henry Ford.

I loved certain passages of the book – I recognized New York, Sequoia Park, and White’s City, New Mexico, among other places – and found observations about Hollywood movies and the incuriousness of some Americans interesting. Other memorable sections describe American football, New York cafeterias, and a meeting with Russian milk drinkers in San Francisco.

The book left a strange sensation because it is, itself, like a house with multiple storeys of meaning. Though it reads like a travelogue, between the lines looms Soviet history, which had already included arrests and famine. I can’t, for example, read complaints about uninteresting but plentiful American food at face value.

Charles Malamuth’s English translation of the book, Little Golden America, is out-of-print, though partially available online here, where even the posters admit they’re infringing on the copyright. There is also Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip, translated by Anne O. Fisher, which contains English versions of I&P’s articles for Ogonek magazine; it appears to cover many of the topics in One-Storey America. The Road Trip book includes Ilf’s photos and was a 2007 Rossica Prize finalist. You can sample its words and images here.

No Return on Amazon
Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip on Amazon
Gazdanov on Amazon

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rasskazy: Five Favorites

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but here’s the best aspect of Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia: I love that I didn’t like all the stories. In fact, when I marked the table of contents, I only wrote “loved” next to 5/22 titles. Sure, many more rated “liked,” but others got “indifferent” or “shrug.” Why is this such a good thing? Because it means editors Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker compiled a risky, unpredictable anthology of stories that challenge readers’ preferences for style and topics.

It also means that the collection forms a wonderful pastiche of Russian voices, all age 40 or under, expressing worries, hopes, and concerns. A reader doesn’t need to love or feel a personal connection to each story to grasp converging and diverging views of similar subjects, like the war in Chechnya or coming of age in a reforming country. Finding common threads in these diverse stories is part of the book’s appeal.

I’m sure some stories that didn’t thrill me the first time will grab me when I pull them off the shelf later: short stories, I think, are in-the-moment reading that either hit or miss our moods, biases, and expectations. They’re also great material for discussion with friends: Tin House, Rasskazy’s publisher, mistakenly sent me a second copy of the book, which I sent to my friend M., who recently completed her MA in Russian literature.

M. and I both love Joseph Brodsky’s poems but so far the Venn diagram of our Rasskazy tastes barely overlaps. To wit: M. particularly liked Nikolai Epikhin’s “Рычева” (“Richeva”), translated by Mariya Gusev, for the characters’ discussion of “People who love money and a life of luxury and who are ready to deceive anyone for this personal happiness, to insult, to kill, and so on…” One character calls that approach to life “weightlifting.” That was fine, and I liked many other spots in the story, like a character telling a cat “I am not a maximalist.” Still, “Richeva” didn’t quite catch me. At least not this time.

Here are the five stories I enjoyed most this time around:

I began Rasskazy by reading Zakhar Prilepin’s Убийца и его маленький друг (“The Killer and His Little Friend”), translated by Svetlana Ilinskaya and Douglas Robinson. The story is about two special forces military policemen known as Primate and Gnome, and inevitable tragedy. The balance between brutality and sweetness is as delicate here as it was in Prilepin’s collection Грех (Sin), and the ending felt very, very Russian to me with its views of forgiveness and friendship.

Vladimir Kozlov’s Праздник строя и песни” (“Drill and Song Day”), translated by Andrea Gregovich and Mikhail Iossel, also features tragedy, though it focuses on schoolchildren preparing (or not!) for an annual celebration of the army. It felt particularly true-to-life to me because I spent a couple perestroika-era months in northern Russian schools. I have tremendous respect for the concision and precision Prilepin and Kozlov achieve in their stories. Also: Gregovich noted in a comment (here) that she’s translating a collection of Kozlov’s stories.

I mentioned Anna Starobinets’s “Правила (“Rules”), translated by Ellen Litman, a couple weeks ago: it’s a slightly haunting story about a child with, well, scary compulsions. Starobinets is sometimes called a Russian Stephen King. I hope she writes another novel.

Oleg Zobern’s “Шестая дорожка Бреговича” (“Bregovich’s Sixth Journey” scroll down), translated by Keith Gessen, concerns a chained-up dog nicknamed Ivan Denisovich, a pot of pel’meni, and freedom. (My friend M., by the way, didn’t like this story.) This story concerns literature, too. Here is our narrator discussing twentieth-century Russian literature: “The further back you go in the century, the simpler it is, everything’s in its place, whereas here—here you’re drinking a beer with some poet who became known at the end of the twentieth century, and it’s hard to tell: Is this a genuinely canonical writer, or is it a pathetic asshole who last week took a swing at his young wife and broke her nose? But with the dead—it’s all good.”

I read the last story in the book last: Natalya Klyuchareva’s Один год в Раю (“One Year in Paradise”), translated by Mariya Gusev, which involves Russia’s World War 2 heritage, a move to the country, interactions between generations, and a decrepit old map.

I read Rasskazy in a mix of Russian and English. I generally compare translations word-for-word only when I wonder about translators’ choices so I can’t speak about accuracy... but I will say that the Rasskazy translations seem to match the originals’ styles and feels fairly closely. I even found it easy to get lost in some translations. This is so rare and welcome that I feel a little petty mentioning that occasional words in translation – homie, wassup, “the runner only made it to second base,” &tc. – feel over-Anglicized. This is where I checked originals. To be fair, some of the Russian terms presented odd challenges, such as conversion from Olbansky, a slangy variation of Russian that uses phonetic spellings.

Even if Olbansky’s nuances (!) don’t quite translate, Rasskazy conveys so much, in English, that I recommend it highly to anyone interested in Russian contemporary culture and/or fiction. I’d love to hear other readers’ comments on specific stories.

Disclosure: Tin House, publisher of Rasskazy, provided me with not one but two copies of the book. I will continue to solicit opinions from M., recipient of the second book, to add to this post.

Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia on Amazon

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Chizhova Wins Russian Booker reports that Elena Chizhova won the 2009 Russian Booker prize for her novel Время женщин (A Time of Women). It appears that the book has only been published in journal form, in the March 2009 issue of Звезда (Star). Unfortunately, it’s not available in the online version of the journal. Chizhova was also a Booker finalist in 2003 and 2005.

Here’s a brief and simplified summary based on a review in the newspaper Kommersant: in the early 1960s, three older women in a Leningrad communal apartment raise the illegitimate and mute daughter of their neighbor, a factory worker who learns she is ill with cancer. The review, generally positive, calls it a story that’s “heartrending and tragic – with a special Soviet tragic element.”

Update, from March 6, 2010: A brief post about an article in the New York Times about Chizhova.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Schwartz’s White Guard Translation Wins AATSEEL Prize

Translator Marian Schwartz announced on her Web site that her translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Белая гвардия (White Guard) won the 2009 award for best translation into English from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL). I have never been able to get into White Guard but will keep trying – several friends have recommended it to me very highly, so I, the ever-moody reader, probably just need to find the right mood.

Schwartz’s site also lists her works in progress, which include Leonid Iusefovich’s (Yusefovich) Big Book award winner, Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Pygmies). Her translation of Olga Slavnikova’s Booker-winning 2017 (sample here) is scheduled for release by Overlook Press in March 2010. I’m set: I moved 2017 up to the top of my bookshelf for reading after Cranes and Pygmies, which I plan to start today. 2017 draws on Urals folk stories by Pavel Bazhov so that’s on the shelf, too, thanks to a friend from Ekaterinburg. Bazhov’s stories have been translated into English.

The list of nominees for AATSEEL’s book awards is fun to browse (here) for past winners and present nominees in four categories. I don’t know who won this year’s other awards but saw some familiar names in the literary/cultural criticism category, including one of my former professors, Gary Saul Morson, author of “Anna Karenina” in Our Times: Seeing More Wisely. The 30+ criticism nominees address a broad range of other topics like Russians in Hollywood, Russian symbolists and sex, sex and violence in Russian popular culture, Bakhtin, Lermontov, Pushkin, Gogol’… some excellent options for blowing a book budget!

Marian Schwartz's Translation of White Guard on Amazon
Pavel Bazhov on Amazon
Marian Schwartz's translation of 2017 on Amazon