Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mid-March Miscellany: Poetry BTBA & A Few Short Pieces

The 2009 Best Translated Book Award for poetry went to The Russian Version, a collection of Elena Fanailova’s poetry translated by Genya Turovksya and Stephanie Sandler. Ugly Duckling Presse published the book. More information is available in this PDF press release and this Three Percent blog post.

Now, summaries of three short novels and long stories…

A friend gave me a copy of Nikolai Leskov’s Железная воля (An Iron Will), a novella dated 1876 about a German engineer, one Hugo Pektoralis, who comes to work in Russia. An Iron Will begins with a framing device, a bunch of guys sitting around drinking tea, discussing generalizations and the thought that, in terms of will (in the sense of resolve), Russians are like dough and Germans are like iron. One then tells Pektoralis’s story.

Leskov’s parable treats the reader to numerous instances of Pektoralis’s absurdly strong ability to keep his will and his word, all without complaining, even when “воля Пекторалиса была велика, но капитал слишком мал” – “Pektoralis’s will was great but his capital was too small.” The end involves death and bliny. Though I remember enjoying Leskov’s Леди Макбет Мценского уезда (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) more when I read it years ago, An Iron Will is fun and quick to read. Reading level for non-native readers: 2/5, moderately easy. Available in translation.

Iurii Poliakov’s short novel Парижская любовь Кости Гуманкова (Kostya Gumankov’s Paris Love) (1991) was just good enough to finish. Poliakov is editor of Литературная газета (Literary Gazette), sells lots of books, and, if you believe the copy on the back of his paperbacks, serves as a guide to the male soul. I certainly can’t say I think Kostya Gumankov bared his soul or much of anything else, though he speaks about regular sessions at a beer pavilion near the office, tells of his strict wife, and describes his Chernenko-era trip to Paris as part of a special tour group. Is beer the key to the male soul? No comment. Is the book any good? It’s pretty mediocre with some cheesy humor but it was successful in evoking something I hadn’t thought about in a long time: the undignified things Russians had to put up with when they traveled abroad during the Soviet era. Reading level for non-native readers: 2/5, moderately easy.

Finally, Viktor Astaf’ev’s Людочка (Lyudochka) is a masterful piece of чернуха – chernukha, which I’ve seen defined as “dark naturalism” – that contains a staggering amount of rural and small-city decay in about 50 pages. A first-person narrator tells the story of a girl he didn’t know whose name might be Lyuda – she’s the simple daughter of collective farmers, and she moves from the “небольшая угасающая деревенька” (small village that’s dying out) to a city, where she finds work at a hair salon.

It’s clear from the start that the story’s a tragedy, and Astaf’ev never lets up: a park becomes a place where people behave like a стадо (herd), the village grows wild, and there’s an ex-con. The ending, of course, involves death, which is part of why Lyudochka felt to me like a modern take on some of the themes in Karamzin’s Бедная Лиза (Poor Liza). Lyudochka is utterly dark and depressing, but it’s also very, very good. Lyudochka was an interesting complement to Roman Senchin’s Елтышевы (The Yeltyshevs), which shows a move from city to country that results in family tragedy. More on that soon. Reading level for non-native readers: 4/5, fairly difficult.

Leskov on Amazon
Viktor Astafiev on Amazon


  1. Thanks as always for the helpful summaries and evaluations! If anyone wants to give Людочка a try, it's here.

  2. Thank you for adding the link, Languagehat -- I'm very good at forgetting to put them in!

    "Людочка" is brutal in several ways, so I was interested to learn that some kids read it in school. One young blogger in Moldova (here, scroll down among the смайлики to the end of вторник) expresses her surprise that it's part of her school's reading list, noting the violence and swear words.

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  4. Thank you, Dibakar, for your very kind comments about the blog. I'm glad you're enjoying it!