Tuesday, April 19, 2011

2011 London Book Fair Notes: Russia Market Focus

The highlight of my London Book Fair was meeting so many of you – it was tremendous fun talking about books and learning about what you do. A colossal thanks for telling me so much about yourselves and your work. I enjoyed the collegial atmosphere very much.

It’s impossible to condense everything I saw and heard during those three days, so I was thrilled to find Russian Dinosaur’s blog post about the LBF whilst riding the bus home from Boston. Days later I’m still feeling a bit fatigued and wanting to hide under a table, а-ля Valerii Briusov in the post’s photograph. I’ll pick up on one of Russian Dinosaur’s points later in the post…

Some of my favorite memories of the fair involve meeting the warm and very funny Margarita Khemlin, who spoke at Pushkin House about how family heirlooms – scissors, a fork – help inspire her writing. It was lovely to learn how objects and family members fit into her work, including the story I translated. It was wonderful chatting with her about her novels, particularly my beloved Klotsvog. Speaking of translation, I also enjoyed the “Found in Translation” panel. Though that panel was a little over-populated – six people, one hour – precluding in-depth discussion, some of the anecdotes were fun. Zinovy Zinik noted that some translators succeed beautifully in creating very readable translations despite mistakes: one character in his Mushroom Picker, translated by Michael Glenny, was a
дантист in the original, but Glenny promoted him from dentist to Dante specialist in the translation. I was also grateful for the conversation about British and American English, a big topic during one-on-one discussions. John O’Brien, of Dalkey Archive Press, expressed his preference for translations that hover somewhere over the mid-Atlantic. He said vast differences in tone, slang, clichés, and everyday vocabulary – he mentioned the question of lifts and elevators – sometimes necessitate editor intervention to avoid alienating readers… But Robert Chandler noted that changing words can throw off sentence rhythm; he spoke of his experiences with New York Review Books, where it sounds as if changes are made only when misunderstandings might occur. Speaking of Robert Chandler and NYRB: this week’s New Republic contains a piece about The Road, a collection of Vasilii (Vasily) Grossman’s works. (I can e-mail you a link if you can’t access the article.)

I may get myself into a quagmire here but I’ll follow up on Russian Dinosaur’s apt comment about Mikhail Elizarov “blatantly over-performing.” The absurdly awkward combination of Elizarov, Zakhar Prilepin, and Polina Dashkova, moderated by Bridget Kendall, for “Beyond the Headlines: Writing about Russia Today,” resulted in a messily fascinating session. Yes, the three writers incorporate political themes into their books but there was palpable tension between Dashkova – who claimed she doesn’t write detective novels (!) – and Prilepin and Elizarov. By the end, Elizarov had trotted out statistics (whose, I don’t know) comparing deaths during the Stalin era, Queen Victoria’s reign, and the Great Depression, inspiring audience gasps (I don’t think I was imagining that) and much discomfort on the dais. Which was probably exactly the reaction he sought. Like Russian Dinosaur and others I spoke with who were there, I saw it as an exaggerated performance intended to provoke. Whether or not you like Elizarov’s tactics and/or writing, he’s a controversial and imaginative writer who explores uncomfortable territory about life, society, and politics. My post about his Librarian, and subsequent comments, demonstrate some of the discomfort he raises. He likes to poke the bear. I, too, have to wonder if he was bored… he and Prilepin were both extremely theatrical, which certainly kept things lively.

The evening program, with events held around London, contrasted nicely with the official-feeling daytime panel discussions held on daises with headphones for simultaneous interpretation. I attended several programs at Pushkin House, where a small, homey space encouraged mingling and discussion between writers and the public. “A Short History of Russian Literary Non-Conformism,” a packed evening hosted by the tireless Irina Prokhorova, included readings and music; I was very sorry to miss percussionist Vladimir Tarasov’s late-evening performance, but enjoyed readings from writers, particularly Zinovy Zinik, who described his “double zed” cocktail of vodka and lime. I wish they’d been served! Two evenings later, in a Q&A session with fans, Liudmila Ulitskaya revealed various aspects of her personal life and tastes: she eats oatmeal, rarely take vacations, and when asked about writers she respects, listed Andrei Platonov, Liudmilla Petrushevskaia, and Venedikt Erofeev’s
Москва-Петушки, among others. Some London-based friends and I also had a great time at Foyle’s hearing two writers we don’t even read much: Dmitry Glukhovsky and Sergey Lukyanenko. They were engaging as they spoke about their fantasy/science fiction books, showing plentiful good humor. Plus respect for Johnny Depp. The audience clearly loved them: the line for book signing was very long.

There’s lots, lots more I could write, including about two Mikhails I particularly enjoyed hearing speak in panels and talking with, albeit briefly: Mikhail Shiskin called for more universal themes to move Russian fiction out of a “ghetto” and back into world literature, and Mikhail Gigolashvili discussed how multilingual life makes him more creative… I was very happy to hear Gigolashvili has another book on the way. Then there was my most unexpected moment: debating the ending of Asystole with its author, Oleg Pavlov. Finally, I should note that I’ve already heard about several good, varied possibilities for English translations, meaning LBF’s Russian program is already accomplishing what it was supposed to accomplish: sales. I’m awaiting news that I can make public.

The full LBF Russia program is online
here; if you have a question about a specific event or writer who is not named Dmitrii Bykov (Is it true he bailed out and went to California!? I guess so.), e-mail me or add a comment. Maybe I or someone else can offer information or clarification. I had an absolutely wonderful time but am happy to be back at home, recovering my mental energy and getting back to my reading and writing! Again, thank you to everyone – particularly Academia Rossica, British Council, and all the attendees I met and heard – who made the book fair so productive, worthwhile, and fun for me. I can’t wait to do it again in New York next year.

For more:

  • Russian Dinosaur: A fun summary of events with a Valerii Briusov tie-in. And Elif Batuman’s boots.
  • Russian BookWorld: This radio show includes discussion of the Новый литературный обозреватель/New Literary Observer program and the ever-energetic Elena Rubinova’s quick interviews with Irina Prokhorova, Zinovy Zinik, Mikhail Shishkin, and Andrew Bromfield.
  • Publishers Weekly: A pre-LBF piece about the Russian book market. And full LBF coverage.
  • OpenSpace.ru: Some nice photos of the book fair itself and, apparently, a reception.
Up Next. I can’t wait to get back to writing about the books I read! Coming up: VladimirSorokin’s Путь Бро (Bro), Aleksandr Snegirev’s Тщеславие (Vanity), then a book by Vardvan Varzhapetian, Margarita Khemlin’s husband, who is also a tremendously engaging writer.


  1. Thank you for this interesting report; sitting in the interpreters' booth, I missed much of the fun happening elsewhere as a result. A pity I didn't know you were there, I'm a long-time reader of your blog.

    As for Elizarov, I've commented on Dinosaur's post already, I don't believe he was overperforming. The things he said are the staple of Stalinist press in Russia; no serious historians takes them seriously, but serious historians in Russia have always faced multiple problems.

    This panel, by the way, was awfully hard to interpret, what with everyone shouting at the same time. One of the most exhausting hours during the whole three days.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Suborno! I'm very sorry we didn't have a chance to meet. When I sat in the back of the Thames Room, I often watched the interpreters in the booths, so I probably saw you.

    I can only imagine that "that" panel was nearly impossible to interpret. I couldn't agree with you more about Elizarov's comments: what he said was absolutely ridiculous, whether intended as the truth (as he sees it) or an attempt to provoke. Or both. My own summary on this might well be to combine Russian Dinosaur's "over-performing" and your "misguided". In the end, it's a shame the controversy and shouting won out over a thoughtful discussion of how the three writers incorporate political themes -- in very different ways -- into their work.