Thursday, April 29, 2010

National Bestseller Finalists & A Nabokov-Related Translation Award

I always enjoy looking up books that are shortlisted for awards -- this year’s National Bestseller short list was good fun thanks to lots of variety... Here are the six finalists and their point totals for this round:

Roman Senchin’s Елтышевы (The Yeltyshevs), which was a 2009 Booker finalist, received 11 points. Senchin’s work, including The Yeltyshevs, is on Журнальный зал here.

Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Люди в голом (People in the Nude), received 7 points. People in the Nude was a 2009 NOSE award finalist. (earlier post with description) Previous writing from Astvatsaturov is on Журнальный зал here.

Vasilii Avchenko’s Правый руль (Wheel on the Right) collected 6 points. (previous post with brief description)

Pavel Krusanov’s Мертвый язык ((A/The?) Dead Language), which says should have been called Мертвый критик (The Dead Critic), had 6 points. I gather from the review that the main character is an old guard St. Petersburg undergroundish guy dissatisfied with the world. Openspace makes it sound like Dead Language is Chinese water torture with words instead of water. Other work by Krusanov is on Журнальный зал here.

Oleg Lukoshin totaled 6 points for his “повесть-комикс” (story-comics) Капитализм (Capitalism), which appears to be composed of many short sketches written in short sentences. Taking a very quick look at this review I noticed that its writer sees Capitalism as drawing on Chekhov’s Спать хочется (“Sleepy”), among other works. The NatsBest site notes that Lukoshin’s book made the short list through popular voting on Live Journal; it was listed as the longest shot to win, with 1:12 odds.

Eduard Kochergin’s Крещенные крестами (Baptized with Crosses) received 5 points. The NatsBest site calls this book autobiographical; the book’s listing says it relates Kochergin’s childhood experiences running away from a temporary home in Omsk for children of enemies of the people. Other works by Kochergin are on Журнальный зал here.

I’ve only read one of the books, The Yeltyshevs, which I thought was so good (previous post) that I am now (disclosure here!) contributing to a proposal for publishing it in translation. I keep meaning to read the one Kursanov book, Бом-бом (Bom-Bom), that’s on my shelf.

Russian language NatsBest commentary on the finalists is available here.

A note for Nabokovians: I learned from Three Percent that Ross Benjamin won the Wolff Translation Prize from the Goethe Institut for his translation of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov. Here’s an excerpt on n+1.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The End of the World as We Know It?

Like apocalyptic fiction? Oh, do I have books for you… if, that is, novels about Mayan prophesies or post-nuclear-war America are your thing. I’m now realizing I’m much more into dystopias than apocalypse, but I read Sergei Lukyanenko’s Атомный сон (Atomic Dream) and Dmitrii Glukhovskii’s (Dmitry Glukhovsky) Сумерки (edit: literally Dusk or Twilight (oops!), though I’ve seen it called It’s Getting Darker) in preparation for the fantasy/science fiction theme planned for the Books from Russia events at the London Book Fair. Both authors were on the schedule, though Glukhovskii’s name disappeared before Icelandic volcanic ash closed European airspace.

Given the content of It’s Getting Darker – there are devastating natural disasters in various countries – I joked with a friend that Glukhovskii must have known something the rest of us didn’t. The first-person narrator of It’s Getting Darker, a Spanish-Russian translator, describes, sometimes in painfully microscopic detail, his experiences translating a Conquistador’s diary. Earthquakes, a jaguar attack in Moscow, and some other bloody deaths ensue.

I didn’t especially enjoy the first half of It’s Getting Darker: I often wanted out of the narrator’s self-involved head. I thought he was a pretentious nudnik; he makes too much, for example, out of things like my beloved salad Olivier. My utter indifference to Mayan prophesies didn’t warm my feelings for It’s Getting Darker, nor did all-of-a-sudden developments like knocks at the door or an important scrap of paper falling from a pocket. At times It’s Getting Darker felt like parody. Still, I plowed through the first half while walking on the treadmill and, curiously, found myself almost looking forward to reading more when the book’s pace picked up and the narrator got out of the house more.

I don’t agree with the marketing genius who decided to call It’s Getting Darker the first Russian intellectual bestseller. I have no argument with “bestseller,” though “first” feels problematic: I have to think at least one of Boris Akunin’s Fandorin books -- which are, IMHO, far brainier -- hit the bestseller list before It’s Getting Darker. “Intellectual” is an even bigger stretch: I thought It’s Getting Darker was simplistic and formulaic, with a conclusion based in truisms about life and immortality. Maybe a book is considered intellectual these days if its narrator is from the intelligentsia? It’s interesting that the blurbs on the back of my book make comparisons to a diverse bunch: Dan Brown, Nikolai Gogol, and Stephen King. I haven’t read a thing by Dan Brown but Glukhovskii’s references to Gogol in It’s Getting Darker sure don’t make him a new Gogol, and I think Stephen King’s early works (which are all I’ve read) are far more capable of making the logically impossible feel plausible. And interesting.

Lukyanenko’s Atomic Dream, a long story, is also an introspective first-person narrative – broadly speaking, it’s about survival, sacrifice, and being human – but it moves much faster. The narrator, known as Drago, describes his meanderings with a man named Mike and a dog named Prince, years after an atomic bomb attack. I knew there was trouble when a two-meter spider appeared on the first page. There’s also occasional telepathy and cannibalism.

Though Atomic Dream didn’t interest me very much – I just couldn’t identify with it – I give Lukyanenko a lot of credit for writing the story in his early twenties and receiving the 1993 “Start” award, for best debut science fiction book, for his Atomic Dream collection. He’s won numerous other awards and books in his Ночной дозор (Night Watch) series have been translated into English and adapted for film. I read about half of Night Watch a few years ago and thought it was okay; I may yet pick it back up. The "Watch" books have been popular both in Russian and in English translation.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: The language in both It’s Getting Darker and Atomic Dream isn’t especially difficult, about 2.5/5 for each.

Translation Watch: Glukhovskii’s Metro 2033 was released in English translation in March 2010 by British publisher Gollancz.

Photo of stone jaguar: Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography, (bjearwicke, via

Metro 2033 on

Lukyanenko on

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Long List for the 2010 Big Book Award

I’m a few days late writing about the long list for this year’s Big Book award: the 49 nominees, in book, journal, or manuscript form, were announced on the 15th, the day I was supposed to fly to London for the London Book Fair. Despite the distraction and my disappointment, I’m feeling very fortunate I’m at home rather than stranded in a place far, far way. I have a reservation for tomorrow, but it’s very unlikely to fly, so I’m already thinking about fun literature-related projects for the next week or so… the interview with translator Marian Schwartz will go up soon, as will a post about two science fiction/fantasy pieces.

So, on to the list! Some nominees repeat from the National Bestseller long list: Vasilii Avchenko’s Правый руль (Wheel on the Right), Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel) (5 глав из романа), and Viktor Pelevin’s t, which I give points because I don’t have to attempt to translate the title without context. Roman Senchin’s Елтышевы (The Yeltyshevs), a Booker finalist, is also on the list (previous post).

Books from writers I’ve read in the past include Margarita Khemlin’s Клоцвог (Klotsvog), Dina Rubina’s Белая голубка Кордовы (The White Dove of Cordova), and German Sadulaev’s Шалинский рейд (The Raid on Shali) (начало окончание), which is about Chechnia. Seeing Vladimir Voinovich’s Автопортрет. Роман моей жизни (A Self-Portrait. A Novel of My Life) on the list felt like a reminder about an old friend, and Счастье возможно: Роман нашего времени (Happiness Is Possible: A Novel of Our Time), by Oleg Zaionchkovskii, nudged me that several people have recommended the author (фрагменты романа).

Then there are Bakhyt Kenzheev’s Обрезание пасынков (Pruning the Shoots), which two friends liked quite a lot, Vladimir Kozlov’s СССР. Дневник пацана с окраины (edit: translator Andrea Gregovich is calling this one CCCP, The Diary of a Kid on the Outskirts), and Zakhar Prilepin’s nonfiction book about Leonid Leonov.

The list of manuscripts feels particularly mysterious thanks to the use of numbers instead of author names plus titles like Христос был женщиной (Christ Was a Woman) (manuscript no. 281, evidently from Olga Novikova), ЛЕВ ТОЛСТОЙ: бегство из рая (LEV TOLSTOY: Escape From Heaven) (manuscript no. 306, apparently from Pavel Basinskii), and Когда был Ленин мумией (When Lenin Was a Mummy) (manuscript no. 51, seemingly excerpted in the magazine Патрон).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Translating 2017: An Interview with Marian Schwartz

I was thrilled when translator Marian Schwartz agreed to an e-mail interview: beyond wanting to learn more about her translation of Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, for which she received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, I wanted to find out what she’s working on now.

In a recent interview with The Boston Globe Marian said, “I think a translation is considered ‘good’ when the reader likes it, even if it’s tough going.” Marian’s translation of 2017 feels faithful to a very difficult original: I thought I was reliving favorite scenes when I read her versions. Which is to say I think the translation both reads well and manages to preserve the complexity and peculiarities of Slavnikova’s writing... fitting Marian’s definition of “good.” This could not have been easy!

Marian mentions below that she translated a manuscript that is slightly shorter than the Russian novel I read this winter. I think Slavnikova’s rearrangements make the opening chapters of this second version of the novel flow better than the Russian book I read. It should help readers avoid some of the difficulties I had getting into the rhythm of 2017 (previous post).

(Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof of 2017 from Overlook Press. I should also add that I have quirky ways of reading translations of books I’ve already read in Russian. Though I didn’t read the translated 2017 cover-to-cover, I spent several hours reading the opening chapters and numerous assorted other passages, occasionally comparing original and translation.)

I haven’t changed anything in Marian’s answers, and I only added links. I want to add one thing here, though: I love her idea about the future of foreign literature. For more information about Marian’s background, awards, and work, please visit her Web site, including this page, with links to full reviews of her translation of 2017.

Here you go:

1. How did you come to translate 2017? Did you find the book or did the book find you?

Several years ago, Natasha Perova of Glas asked me to translate something for Nine of Russia's Foremost Women Writers. One of the choices she offered was an excerpt from an earlier version of this novel, an excerpt that included Slavnikova's spectacular set piece on transparency, which may be my favorite nugget in the whole book. Slavnikova's ability to write these set pieces about abstract ideas that are nonetheless integral to the novel reminds me of Berberova. After I got the NEA to complete the translation, another excerpt ran in Subtropics. But then Slavnikova did a somewhat shortened version for Gallimard, and that's the manuscript I translated for this edition.

2. I noticed in your acknowledgements that you thanked a friend and colleague for help with geological terminology. Was that one of the most difficult aspects of translating 2017?

I am very fortunate to have a colleague, R. Michael Conner, who specializes in translating Russian geology, so on the one hand I knew the scientific language was going to be a problem, but on the other I knew I had an authoritative source. Mike had helped me in a similar way when I translated Lost in the Taiga, which takes place in Siberia and describes the terrain at great length. So no, that wasn't difficult in the way the general density of Slavnikova's style is. As you know, Russian creates dense language in an entirely different way from English. Russian relies more on inflection; English on position. These kinds of passages become even harder when movement is involved, since Russian conceptualizes motion in what is, for English speakers, a totally alien fashion. It's at these moments that I have to step back, take a deep breath, and reimagine how English constructs a sentence out of these same components, while preserving the tone. Of course.

3. 2017 has a lot to offer, including a love story, wilderness adventure, and philosophical themes. Are there any themes or plot lines in the book that you think should be especially interesting or universal for people who read the book in translation?

The novel's attraction, I think, is not that it's universal but just the opposite, that it gives non-Russians very direct access to the kind of exotic Russian culture and psyche that has fascinated Western culture for over a hundred years. We read The Brothers Karamazov for the philosophy, but we're also intrigued by the characters' daily existence and general worldview. Some of that is going on here, too. In Spartan living conditions, educated men plot secretive prospecting expeditions and a whiz-kid computer programmer shuts himself in to figure out how to unlock secrets guarded by futuristic safeguards of his own making. Women turn to stone, for goodness' sake! Yes, there are several plot threads, but what really holds the reader, I think, is the emotion. There are sections that make my heart pound every time I read them.

4. What are you working on now?

Right now I'm translating an art book for Yale University Press on the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich. This is a period near and dear to my heart, and the book works with newly accessible archival materials that shed surprisingly new light on what I'd always considered a well-studied period. Little did I know.

5. What favorite writers or pieces of Russian fiction would you like to recommend to readers?

Akashic Books is putting out Moscow Noir in June, and for it I translated several stories, all but one by authors I'd never heard of let alone read, and three of them impressed me very much, Andrei Khusnutdinov, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Aleksandr Anuchkin. All the stories are a little more violent than I usually go for, but if you can accept that convention, then you're going to enjoy this collection.

The two more "literary" writers who I think should find publishers here are Mikhail Shishkin and especially Leonid Yuzefovich, who in addition to Cranes and Pygmies, which you reviewed, has a terrific historical detective trilogy (later made into a TV mini-series). Yuzefovich is a historian with special interests in Mongolia and medieval diplomacy (!), and he manages to bring all that into play. The Inspector Putilin series is set in St. Petersburg and loosely based on an actual detective who lived there in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

6. What question do you wish I had asked? And please answer it!

What does the future hold for foreign literature?

My crystal ball tells me that we are finally going to figure out how to publish and deliver great international literature electronically. I believe there are at least 5000 potential readers for almost any first-rate foreign novel, which would make publishing those books viable. Exactly what kind of portal or portals have to be devised is beyond my expertise, but we're seeing success of this sort already in science fiction, for example. International literature is one more kind of niche market, one of many that suddenly have a future. My hope is that this will lead to a much broader range of literature being published, not just the highest art (which clearly must be published), the most stylistically and intellectually challenging, but also books that are more conventional narratively and will have a wider audience. I'm not often this optimistic, but in this case I am. It's crazy, I know.

2017 on Amazon

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Going Round and Round: Bykov’s ЖД

Great idea. Messy execution. That pretty much sums up my thoughts on Dmitrii Bykov’s novel ЖД (ZhD) (chapters here), which Alma Books recently released in an English version as Living Souls (PDF excerpt here).

The great idea: ZhD presents an alternative view of Russian history and politics, in which northerners (Varangians) and southerners (Khazars) live in ongoing conflict. History moves in endless cycles, as do people who literally walk and ride around in circles. The book takes place in a post-petroleum near future, and many of Bykov’s characters are in the military and/or romantic couples. I’m giving only the barest summary here because the Glas site provides so much information (warning: including many spoilers) here.

ZhD gave me an odd case of déjà vu. Like Bykov’s Списанные (The List), which I read last summer (post here), ZhD left me thinking Bykov couldn’t decide if he wanted to write essays or a novel. Both books contain many, many pages of heavy-deep-and-real conversations that could conceivably occur in life but, for my taste, felt too repetitive or contrived for fiction. I’m glad Bykov broaches difficult topics but his methods and his humor, which can get a little shticky (in these senses, not these), just don’t seem to grab me.

I frequently lost interest during the political discussions and background: even when they started out topical and intriguing, there was often too much of a good thing. Worse, they detracted from the book’s stronger layers. I most enjoyed sections when Bykov let his characters out into the world, where they could experience rather than just talk. Some scenes were fantastical, like a ghost telegraphist mentioning eternal war. I also thought an officer’s lousy Moscow home leave showed bureaucracy and spiritual poverty quite nicely. I particularly liked Bykov’s characters called Vas’ki, people who wander Russia and lack memory but have their own peculiar wisdom. They reminded me of holy fools.

Bykov includes all sorts of literal and metaphorical circles in ZhD. The title characters of ZhD want to reject what Bykov calls the замкнутый круг (vicious circle) of history, preferring to get off the track and create something new – children, a future – rather than wander the world and, ultimately, history, in circles, like the living dead.

From a historical perspective, the circles in ZhD are part of a literary progression. First: Dante’s Divine Comedy, a poem, featured circles of Hell. Second: Nikolai Gogol called his Dead Souls a poem and wanted to create a Russian Divine Comedy. Third: Bykov evokes Gogol by calling ZhD a poem and saying the title letters could stand for живые души, “living souls.” And Bykov includes lots of hellish-sounding circles.

Though ZhD felt overloaded at 685 pages, I’m sure readers who enjoy novels of ideas with characters chewing the political and historical fat will love it. Even some readers who don’t like all the chat may come away feeling more positive than I did: a Russian friend who told me she liked ZhD admitted, upon pointed questioning, that she’d skimmed.

Readers of the English translation, Living Souls, may feel less urge to skim. The English version of the book is roughly 50 pages shorter than the Russian original that my friend and I read. The Living Souls translator, Cathy Porter, told me in e-mail correspondence that, in collaboration with Bykov, she didn’t chop but chose to prune things like repetition and untranslatable Russian word play, to keep the narrative moving without losing the book’s humor and poetry. Porter said Bykov, who encouraged a free translation, thoroughly appreciates her tightening of the text.

Reading level for non-native readers: 3/5, average difficulty. I found it most difficult to plow through the repetition.

Bykov's Living Souls on Amazon

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Russian Literature at the London Book Fair

I’m very excited to be heading to London soon for the London Book Fair and a morning-to-night program of Russian literature events organized by Academia Rossica! Academia Rossica calls this year’s program focus “fantasy and magical realism,” an aptly broad description that fits the diverse writers and critics who will speak and/or read: Dmitry Bykov, Lev Danilkin, Maria Galina, Sergei Lukyanenko, Olga Slavnikova, and Vladimir Sharov.

The schedule also includes seminar discussions on the Russian publishing market and literary translation. Russian programs at the book fair itself are listed here (click on the phrases at the top of the sidebar for full details), and there is a list of evening readings here. I’m especially looking forward to the “Voices from the Future – The Debut Prize for New Russian Writers” session on the 20th: I translated a few short pieces for Squaring the Circle, an anthology published by Glas that collects work by winners of the Debut Prize.

This week I’ll post two pieces related to writers who will be at the book fair: thoughts on Bykov’s ЖД (recently released in translation as Living Souls) plus an interview with Marian Schwartz, who translated Slavnikova’s 2017.

Let me know if you’ll be at the book fair and would like to meet up… or if you have a question for one of the writers. I’ll see what I can do to get answers!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Revolution Will Be Novelized: Prilepin’s San’kya

If you’d like a intimate view of politically motivated violence, vandalism, and mayhem, you’ll probably love Zakhar Prilepin’s Санькя (San’kya). San’kya tells the story of Sasha Tishin, a young man bent on finding an active role in an opposition party. His grandparents, who live in a remote village, call him San’kya, and his last name is derived from тише (quieter), though he also has an aggressive side.

Other than the Molotov cocktails and intention to kill a Latvian judge, Sasha feels pretty typical: he respects his grandparents, takes offense at his mother’s low nursing salary, and sometimes drinks vodka. He thinks about finding work. The problem with Sasha as a literary character – even if he’s an antihero of our time – is that his head often overflows with пустота (emptiness). Prilepin writes that we are all empty, with wind rattling through our atoms, but it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say Sasha and his party comrades feel devoid of principles or ideas beyond resentment and a desire to burn something.

Though Sasha’s emptiness may be socially or politically important, Sasha feels too undeveloped as a character to fill a novel. It’s also frustrating that San’kya includes secondary characters, like brothers known as Negative and Positive, who feel distinct but abbreviated and typecast in ways that make it easy for Prilepin to elicit reader recognition and reactions. The brothers, for example, grow houseplants, and a girl from the party named Verochka (from Vera, or Faith) is quite small, making her feel fragile. The contrast between rural and urban life didn’t feel fresh to me, either.

The shortcuts might work fine in a short story but in San’kya they contributed to my feeling that the book was watered down, as if Prilepin extended novella material into a full-length novel of 367 pages. I’ve enjoyed and admired Prilepin’s short stories much, much more: though simple, their condensed emotions have a far greater impact than the sometimes plodding pace of San’kya. Sure, political conflict can plod along endlessly, as the book’s last line reinforces, but in San’kya it doesn’t make for shapely fiction.

Despite thinking San’kya isn’t Prilepin’s best work, I don’t think it was a waste of time. It fits squarely in the post-Soviet “(anti)hero of our time” mosaic, and has been compared to Maksim Gorkii’s Мать (Mother), landing it within a long continuum of Russian political writing. Though I couldn’t finish Mother and (obviously) don’t think San’kya is a great piece of fiction, I have to admit both books have places.

Two other things: First, Prilepin is, himself, a member of the opposition National Bolshevik party. I’m not interested in whether art imitates life or vice versa, but some readers may be interested in how Prilepin portrays political activity that can easily be called extremist. Second, San’kya was a finalist for both the Booker and National Bestseller awards, losing to, respectively, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 and Dmitrii Bykov’s Boris Pasternak. San’kya won the Yasnaya Polyana award.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 2/5, not too difficult, thanks to short sentences and common vocabulary. Translation Watch: Available in Chinese, Polish, and French.

Photo by Cheryl Empey, via

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Representations of Reality: A Time of Women and The Yeltyshevs

How do you prefer your fictional reality? I’ve been thinking about writers’ methods for creating fictional realities after reading two 2009 Booker Prize finalists: Elena Chizhova’s Время женщин (A Time of Women), about women in a communal apartment in the early ‘60s raising a girl who doesn’t speak, and Roman Senchin’s Елтышевы (The Yeltyshevs), about a failing family that moves from city to village in the 21st century.

Chizhova, who won the Booker for A Time of Women, uses chunks of first-person narration that jump from character to character, capturing verbal tics and grammar mistakes. Her characters’ dialogue, inner thoughts, and descriptions sometimes feel like a mush up of skaz technique and the “verbatim” method of using actual utterances in literary and cinematic texts. Chizhova was quoted in a New York Times article as saying she eavesdropped on her mother and great-grandmother as a child, making me wonder if their speech patterns inspired her use of the vernacular in A Time of Women.

Chizhova’s situations and characters – three old women with old-fashioned names, a young female factory worker dying of cancer, and the young woman’s co-workers – feel authentic, gritty, and very specific, though the novel’s language and structure is also so choppy and jumpy that it was difficult to engage with the book. At least I’m not alone: Anna Narinskaia’s review in Kommersant (here) mentions the relief of passages in which the young woman’s daughter tells of her life in more direct language. The reviewer also mentions the frequency of diminutive forms in the book. Yes, they become grating.

What frustrated me more about A Time of Women was that I felt I’d already covered so many of its themes with other writers: voices, the apartment question, the young woman’s hassles at work over her personal life and choices, the parallel of a rotten system and cancer, illegitimate children, memories of World War Two… I don’t mean to sound immune to the power of those important and very sad themes that examine totalitarianism and the Soviet past but they had an unfortunate recycled feel, despite the way Chizhova expresses them. It’s just not my book.

To be fair, I should add that I read A Time of Women from a printout I made from the literary journal Zvezda’s Web site; I don’t particularly like reading printouts. A Russian-language book (print run: 4,000) is evidently on the way but I have seen no mentions of an English-language translation.

Which brings me to Senchin. And television, the ultimate medium for pseudo-reality. (Disclosure: I don’t have a TV.) Both Chizhova and Senchin use televisions in their books: Chizhova’s young mother manages to buy one, and it becomes a view into other lives that look happy to the characters. In Senchin, TV reflects the Yeltyshevs’ degradation. Living in the village, the family’s humanness and their television, a connection to the rest of the world, die. The family sinks into alcoholism and violence, and the TV reception fades. When they lived in town, Mr. Yeltyshev was a cop, his wife was a librarian. He fails to keep the peace, and she doesn’t seem to read much. One son can’t hold down a job, the other is in jail. Ouch.

The reader knows from the start that Senchin’s characters are doomed: Mr. Yeltyshev loses his job at the drunk tank after a critical lapse of judgment, lending the book the feel of a dark, dark parable. Senchin’s matter-of-fact narrative voice drew me in from the first sentence, and his characters, locations, and situations are so vivid that I felt like I was on location with the narrator. Senchin doesn’t include extra details, and his mentions of changes of season reinforce the atmosphere and inevitability of the Yeltyshevs’ worsening situation. Yeltyshev himself, formerly part of the rotten system, becomes rottener. I felt queasy but I couldn’t stop reading. The Russian friend who bought the book for me in Moscow read it before handing it off: she couldn’t put it down, either.

Some critics grumbled when Senchin didn’t win the Booker – I also think it or Leonid Yuzefovich’s Cranes and Dwarfs (previous post) would have been a better choice than A Time for Women – but The Yeltyshevs has been criticized by some readers who think it’s too depressing. Yes, it’s chernukha, that dark naturalism I mentioned a few posts ago. Yes, it’s horribly depressing, particularly because the Yeltyshevs are always waiting for someone, something, anything miraculous to save them from themselves and their poor decisions. The Yeltyshevs is one of the saddest, darkest, and most achingly real books I’ve read in a long time. But for my taste, it’s also one of the best because it provides such a terrifying and detailed psychological portrait of intertwined economic, social, professional, and moral failures that could, with a few changes, easily take place in another family or another country. There’s lots more I’d love to write about both these books, but I’ll stop by saying that the universality of The Yeltyshevs is, for me, an important part of what realistic fiction should be.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: A Time of Women: 4/5, rather difficult, for its vernacular plus a twitchy narrative that can be difficult to follow. The Yeltyshevs: 2/5, moderately easy thanks to simple vocabulary and a smooth writing style that builds suspense despite an obvious outcome.