Sunday, March 27, 2011

NOS-1973, Shishkin’s Letters, Chizhova’s Crimes, and Reading Russian Group in London

News items and book comments piled up during a week of cold-induced sniffling and tiredness, so here’s everything, in brief, all at once…

1. The jury for the experimental NOS-1973 award recognized Andrei Siniavskii’s Прогулки с Пушкиным (Strolls with Pushkin) during public debates on March 25. The NOS-1973 expert committee, however, chose Venedikt Erofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line) and audience members picked Varlam Shalamov’s Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales). Online voters preferred Fazil Iskander’s Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem). This is such a curious project idea that I’m not sure what else to say except that all these works are available in English translation. (Previous post on NOS-1973)

2. Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book) was an odd reading experience: the book is a novel in letters, not a genre I’d choose as a favorite, and I would have put the book down for severe lack of interest early on if it hadn’t been on the London Book Fair schedule. The combination of letter writers – a man serving in the military and a woman living an everyday life – make me wonder if this is another book where the men will read War and the women will read Peace.

Despite the inauspicious start, Letter-Book began to appeal to me about halfway through. I’ll be vague because there are several key bits that I don’t want to reveal beyond noting that points out that a письмовник (letter-book) collects samples or models of letters… So why my change of heart? For one thing, I realized why I’d felt a disconnect in the series of letters. For another, the woman’s stories of caring for a friend’s children and then her dying parents were nicely told, almost archetypical in their detailed ordinariness. Those pages alone redeemed the book for me, though I also began to appreciate Shishkin’s use of repetition and his messages about writing, language, pain, death, and transcendence. Now I’m looking forward to – finally! – reading Венерин волос (Maidenhair), which, by the way, Marian Schwartz is translating for Open Letter.

3. Elena Chizhova’s 2005 Booker finalist novel – called Преступница (The [female] Criminal) in its journal version and Полукровка (Half-Blood) in a newer book version – was an odder, more difficult experience, largely because redemption never came, despite very promising material about hatreds and social problems. Chizhova tells the Soviet-era story of Masha, a young woman of mixed ethnicity – her mother is Russian, her father is Jewish – who submits false papers so she can be admitted to an institute. Masha has already experienced anti-Semitism during a university’s admissions process and at home, from her communal apartment neighbor. Though I expect most readers would sympathize with Masha’s ambitions and her family’s traumas, some of Masha’s other actions are peculiarly mean-spirited. Hence the original “criminal” title.

Though Masha’s harshness initially made the book feel unpredictable and edgy, the effect quickly wore off as the book structure grew messier: I don’t think Chizhova managed to unify the novel’s animal metaphors, characters, and social issues into a cohesive novel. Masha’s classmate Valya, for example, is an on-and-off presence in the book whose loneliness is rooted in a wish to be accepted by caricature-like mean girl dormmates. Unfortunately, Valya’s problems felt hysterical and trivial to me compared to Masha’s. Masha’s relationship with a much-older professor, who did time in a Stalin-era camp in his youth, is even more frustrating. He is depicted as a wolf – even a wolf in a sheepskin coat! – and an alcoholic, and Masha’s attraction to him is mystical.

4. Russian Reading Group in London. Reactions to Chizhova’s Крошки Цахес (Children of Zaches) have been far more positive, so I wish I’d chosen that novel instead of Half-Blood. Chizhova, with Children of Zaches, is one of four writers on the list for discussion at a Russian reading group meeting that And Other Stories will hold on April 4, 2011, at Pushkin House in London. And Other Stories has Russian-language books available for borrowing and English-language excerpts available for download. The other writers on the agenda are Oleg Pavlov, Aleksei Slapovskii, and Oleg Zaionchkovskii. Writer pages on the And Other Stories Web site invite comments, so you can offer thoughts on a book or writer even if you can’t make the group meeting.

Though I won’t be arriving in time for the reading group meeting, I’m looking forward to meeting with And Other Stories when I’m in London for the book fair. They’re a new publisher with an unusual perspective: “And Other Stories wants to open up publishing, so that great readers who don’t happen to be editors can have a say in publishing choices.” Other upcoming reading groups focus on German, Portuguese, and French books, and past groups have included Lithuanian literature.

Up next: Margarita Khemlin’s latest novel, then Путь Бро (Bro) the prequel novel of Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy.


  1. I will be at the Russian Reading Group on 4 April, so I will get to meet you. I've been following your blog ever since Language Hat introduced it to me a year or so ago.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Anonymous. Alas, I won't be in town in time for the reading group meeting -- I'll be at lots of London Book Fair events the following week, though, so perhaps we'll meet up in some other place.

  3. Whoops, sorry about that - my name's Anne Marie. (I don't have a proper account.) I'll be at the book fair as well, so who knows!

  4. Man, I don't know how you could possibly choose between Москва-Петушки and Колымские рассказы. I'm glad they both won!

    (Haven't read Iskander, but am looking forward to him.)

  5. @Anonymous/Anne Marie: Great, I'll watch for you around the Russian events. I'll be at a lot of the "Hot off the Shelves" sessions. Send me an e-mail note, if you'd like.

    @Languagehat: I know! That combination of nominees really made the project odd and intriguing. It was nice to see all these works get recognition.

  6. re Shishkin: did you do another review of "Письмовник" or just this one? I read the novel in Znamya soon after it came out last year and was fascinated by his technique.
    To add to what you've said, his trick with time-shifting and weaving in motives from traditional fairy-tales works wonders.
    He moves the male character to the war in a kind of Golden Cockerel way - and then it turns out that it's about an almost forgotten intervention by the great powers of the day in the Boxer Rebellion (yehetuan), which today reads like something either completely incongruos, or like a caricature of Afghanistan.
    In the same vein the woman starts with the horrors of the abortion clinic and then adopts the Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), that she'd built herself. It reads wonderfully. I've scribbled a review months ago, but didn't publish it because I couldn't decide what to make of it, is there a message at all?

    Re.title, I'de translate it as 'The Book of Sample Letters'. There must have been something similar in England and America, but I couldn't find it.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this review. I missed it and only came back to read it via the link on your last post about Nose.

  7. Thank you for your detailed comment, Alexander. This is all I wrote about the book: like you, I ultimately had trouble finding anything meaningful to say about the book, other than revealing more about Shishkin's techniques, the time-shifting you mention, and the death and transcendence theme. Now, for better or worse, Письмовник has faded in my memory after reading Венерин волос, which I thought was a much better book.

    As for the title, I used the one that was used for London Book Fair materials, retaining the hyphen. The term "letter book" does exist in English for this meaning, though I don't think it has high frequency. The phrase sounds a little general to me, without a strong feel for "sample." (Translation of titles is so vexing!)