Monday, October 24, 2011

M/М: Makanin, Mandel’shtam, and Co.

M turned out to be an unexpectedly prolific letter for favorite writers: I have one fiction writer and two poets to list, plus two literary helpers…

I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Vladimir Makanin and found more than enough to consider him a favorite. The very first Makanin line that I read, the beginning of the story “Сюр в Пролетарском районе”(“Surrealism in a Proletarian District”), got me off to a great start: “Человека ловила огромная рука.” (“A huge hand was trying to catch a man.”) (I used the translation in 50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories.) The sentence fit my mood and the story caught me, too; I went on to read and love Makanin’s novellas Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead) (previous post).

Later, Андеграунд, или герой нашего времени (Underground or A Hero of Our Time) (previous post) took a couple hundred pages to win me over with its portrayal of a superfluous man for the perestroika era but I ended up admiring the book. Not everything from Makanin has worked for me, though: I didn’t like the Big Book winner Асан (Asan) (previous post) much at all, the Russian Booker-winning Стол, покрытый сукном и с графином посередине (Baize-Covered Table with Decanter) didn’t grab me, and I couldn’t finish Испуг (Fear), which felt like a rehashing of Underground. Despite that, I look forward to reading more of Makanin, especially his early, medium-length stories. A number of Makanin’s works are available in translation.

More M writers: I very much enjoyed Afanasii Mamedov’s Фрау Шрам (Frau Scar) (previous post) and want to read more of his writing, and I’d like to explore Dmitrii Merezhkovskii and Iurii Mamleev more, too… I’ve read only small bits of both and would be happy for recommendations.

In poetry, I’ve always enjoyed Osip Mandel’shtam, whose acmeist poetry was a big part of my graduate coursework. “Адмиралтейство(“The Admiralty”) is a sentimental favorite, probably partly because it’s one of the first Mandel’shtam poems I read, partly because the Admiralty was a landmark for me when I spent a summer in Leningrad. Another: “Волк” (“Wolf”), which I analyzed a few years ago with a friend. I’ve also enjoyed reading Vladimir Maiakovskii, though I think I find him more memorable as a Futurist figure than as a writer.

As for the literary helpers: D. S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature has been with me since the early ‘80s, when I first started reading Russian literature in Russian. My little paperback is water-stained, falling apart, and dusty-smelling. But it’s a classic on the classics, and I still use it. I should also mention Gary Saul Morson, who taught War and Peace to me twice, first in an undergraduate course on history and literature that also covered Fathers and Sons and Notes from the Underground, then in a graduate course on War and Peace. I didn’t realize then how much he’d taught me about reading, writing, literary criticism, and carnival. One day (one year?) I will read all of his Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, in order, instead of picking up the book and reading random chunks, à la Pierre Bezukhov.

Up next: Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood), which I’ve been enjoying after a rough start with too many quirky names, then Dostoevsky’s Неточка Незванова (Netochka Nezvanova), which I’m reading as part of my preparation for speaking on a panel—with Marian Schwartz and Jamie Olson—at the American Literary Translators Association conference next month.

Image credit: Photo of Vladimir Makanin from Rodrigo Fernandez, via Wikipedia

Makanin on Amazon

Mandel'shtam on Amazon

A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 (an update I ought to buy [so the book doesn't make me sneeze]!)

Gary Saul Morson on Amazon

(I am an Amazon associate and receive a small percentage of purchases that readers make after clicking through my links.)


  1. Hi Lizok

    I was glad to see you talking about Vladimir makanin. I really want to read his work, especially after seeing him at the London Book Fair, because I just really liked him! I'll use your post to choose which book to begin with. Interestingly, I already have Underground (in Russian) and I have Baize- Covered Table in English translation, which don't top you list. I'll hold off on these, I think, at least until I've read some of the others.

  2. I haven't read Makanin yet, but am very much looking forward to him based on your recommendations (I'll probably start with Laz). I'm a big fan of both Mandelshtam and Mirsky (but I'm not sure what you mean by "update"; the volume you link to, which is the one I own, is just a slightly condensed reprint).

    M is quite a fruitful letter; in the nineteenth century there's Anastasia Marchenko, Mikhail Mikhailov, Nikolai Mikhailovsky, Apollon Maykov, Pavel Melnikov (Pechersky), Daniil Mordovtsev, Boleslav Markevich, Dmitri Mamin-Sibiryak, and Grigory Machtet, and in the twentieth Elizaveta Militsyna, Aleksandr Malyshkin, Anatoly Mariengof, Anton Makarenko, Georgii Markov, Sergei Mikhalkov, Boris Mozhaev, Vladimir Maksimov, Vladimir Maramzin, Yuri Miloslavsky, Aleksandra Marinina, Vadim Mesyats, Konstantin Mamaev, Aleksandr Morozov, Yuri Maletsky, Sergei Minaev, and Irina Mamaeva, aside from the ones you mention. Not all equally significant, obviously, but all part of the tapestry of Russian literature, and I thought it was worthwhile to list them for reference.

  3. Oh, and I ordered a copy of the Morson book, which sounds like the kind of literary criticism I actually enjoy and get something out of.

  4. Thanks, languagehat and anonymous (Anne Marie?), for the comments!

    Yes, for those beginning to read Makanin, I'd probably most recommend an early long story/novella. Лаз and Долог наш путь were both excellent entry-level pieces for me. Underground took me a fair bit of patience, though I found it very rewarding. And strangely memorable.

    You are correct, languagehat, about the newer edition of Mirsky... in this case, "update" just means an improvement for my personal library, that I'd love not to sneeze when I use the book, which is held together with a rubber band! I hope you enjoy the Morson book: I find his writing very readable and also intend/hope to read Anna Karenina again, together with his Anna Karenina in our time.

    That list of M writers is, indeed, huge. Mamin-Sibiriak is one that I've been meaning to look at for some time.

  5. I think Nadezhda Mandelstam should be included as a writer in her own right.

    And Mikhailovsky (The Hero and the Crowd) is certainly worthy of attention as a thinker and critic. He is undeservedly forgotten, mostly because of his arguments with marxists.

  6. D'oh! How could I forget Nadezhda Mandelstam? Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Thanks for the note, Alexander! Yes, Nadezhda Mandel'shtam is a good addition... though I'm ashamed to say I've only read small bits of her work.

    Languagehat, as penance for leaving Nadezhda Mandel'shtam off your list, we should sentence you to reading a Sergei Minaev novel!

  8. Languagehat included Sergei Mikhalkov in the list. He is a curious figure (I wrote about him on Tetradki), but what about his two sons, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov? They are primarily film personalities, but Andrei, for example, wrote the script for Tarkovsky's 'Andrei Rublev' and Nikita turned 180 degrees the plot of two of Akynin's novels, 'The Turkish Gambit' and 'Statsky Sovetnik', in their film versions.