Saturday, February 27, 2010

Notable Newish Translations: A Few Favorites from Life Stories

Ah, short story anthologies! I read the Life Stories collection much like I read Rasskazy last fall: sporadically, out of order, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in English, depending on Internet availability of originals. And I didn’t finish every story. The two books have only one writer in common, Zakhar Prilepin.

Life Stories is more difficult to characterize than Rasskazy, which includes only writers with post-Soviet adulthoods. Life Stories encompasses writers of all ages, many of whom – Pelevin, Makanin, Rubina, and Yuzefovich, among them – are bestsellers and/or winners of large prizes. Plus the content of Life Stories was dictated by a Russian story collection that came out last year: Книга, ради которой объединилилсь писатели, объединить невозможно (roughly: A Book for the Sake of Which Writers Who’d Never Get Together Got Together). Though Life Stories doesn’t translate everything in its Russian predecessor because of copyright, it, like the Russian original, benefits the Vera Hospice Charity Fund and hospice care in Moscow.

Though I enjoyed more in Life Stories than in Rasskazy, I had more of a feeling of discovery reading Rasskazy. I already knew most of the writers in Life Stories, with the exception of Khurgin (see below), but I hadn’t read the majority of the writers in Rasskazy. I especially like finding new writers in anthologies.

I could generalize about which collection has more accomplished or risky or personal or intriguing or important stories, but that’s not fair to you or the stories themselves… both books contain stories that are accomplished, risky, personal, intriguing, and important. And tastes differ. What’s most important is that the two books complement each other, creating a wonderfully compact picture of Russian contemporary fiction that’s awfully fun to read.

There was a lot to like in Life Stories. Here’s what I liked most:

I began and ended Life Stories with Zakhar Prilepin’s “Grandmother, Wasps, Watermelon” (Бабушка, осы, арбуз) – I reread it because it didn’t feel right to comment on a story I read four months ago. The story felt even truer the second time, showing gender and ethnic divides during potato harvest, and then a return to a childhood place. I think Prilepin’s great strengths are his spare writing style and his ability to balance so confidently on the edge of sentimentality and brutality. (Translated by Deborah Hoffman.)

I met one new writer in Life Stories: Alexander Khurgin, whose “Earplugs” (Беруши) tells the story of a woman who “жила красотой мира и окружающей среды обитания” – “lived by the beauty of the world and of her environmental habitat.” Nelya’s life changes when a co-worker suggests she use earplugs to drown out the neighbors’ noise. I was glad to “find” Khurgin: both his narrative voice and his characters are quirky but not irritatingly so. (Translated by Anne O. Fisher.)

Vladimir Sorokin’s “Black Horse with a White Eye” (Черная лошадь с белым глазом) held a nice combination of motifs: the story combines a family scything outing with folk themes when a young girl wanders into the woods to pick berries. She is told not to go far, a signal that something will happen. The story includes bits of accented Russian dialogue, some of which is rendered into English with a rather (too) southern twang. (Translated by Deborah Hoffman.)

Evgenii Grishkovets’s “Serenity” (“Спокойствие”) is typical Grishkovets: an easy-to-read story with insights into human behavior. Though Grishkovets’s stories always feel a little slight to me, this one, like several others, was easy to identify with: its main character stays in the city for the summer, taking it easy while everyone else is away for vacation. Any character who prefers reading over mushroom picking gets some points from me. I’m sure Grishkovets sells so many books because of his relentless позитив (positiveness). (Translated by Paul E. Richardson.)

I already mentioned another favorite, Leonid Yuzefovich’s “Гроза” (“The Storm”), translated by Marian Schwartz, in this post, and I covered Andrei Gelasimov’s story “Жанна” (“Joan”), translated by Alexei Bayer, here.

Disclosure: Russian Information Services provided me with a copy of Life Stories. (I bought another copy of the book as a holiday gift.)

All posts on Life Stories (published by Russian Information Services)

All posts on Rasskazy (published by Tin House)

Life Stories on Amazon

Rasskazy on Amazon


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