Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Russian Booker Lives

The Russian Booker Prize has a new general sponsor, Российская корпорация средств связи, known as Russian Telecom Equipment Company in English. RTEC has a history of supporting literary awards: it began sponsoring the Student Booker in 2010 and has been involved with that program for seven years, according to a news story on Lenta also reports that a five-year sponsorship contract with the Booker may be signed this summer.

No Booker will be awarded for 2011; books released this year may be submitted for the 2012 prize season. The Booker will, however, hold a special “Booker of the Decade” competition in 2011. All shortlisted books from 2001-2010 are eligible. Judges from past Booker seasons will choose five works each to develop a shortlist that will be announced in early November. The winner will be announced on December 1; the prize will be 600,000 rubles.

The Booker site has a summary of rules plus a list of all eligible Booker of the Decade books online here. There are lots of books on the list that I’d love to see get more (or less!) attention… and I’d be interested in hearing reader predictions.

For my part, I’m about to start reading Oleg Pavlov’s Казенная сказака (A Barracks Tale or Military Apologue), a 1995 Booker finalist and the first book of a trilogy that culminated in Карагандинские девятины, или Повесть последних дней (A Ninth-Day Wake/Party at Karaganda or A Story of Recent Days or Commemoration in Karaganda), which won the Booker in 2002. (Oy, there are multiple translated titles floating around for these books!) Readers on the lookout for English-language translations will be happy to know that A Barracks Tale is listed as winning a translation grant from Transcript, a program of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation; publisher is And Other Stories.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Seeing the Light: Platonov’s Juvenile Sea

After reading Il’ia Boiashov’s unsatisfying Stone Woman, I decided to get back to (modern) classics with a bit of Andrei Platonov… it finally felt like time to read the long story Ювенильное море (Juvenile Sea, sometimes Sea of Youth). And what a wonderfully disorienting pleasure it was to read Platonov: it would have been worth reading if only for its giant pumpkin shell sleeping pods.

And where else can a reader find a production story – goals here include increasing cattle production and investigating alternative energy sources – written in a variegated language that braids poetic turns with Soviet-speak and tropes from socialist realism? I think my biggest difficulty in reading Platonov is that his unusual word combinations dazzle so much that I have to read each line twice to apprehend their various literal, figurative, and story meanings. Often, twice is not enough: Platonov’s writing is so full of остранение (making it strange) that almost everything feels a bit off, unusual, or grotesque, making reading a full-on experience. Even the preface to one of my Platonov books begins with the line “Кажется, мы уже никогда не узнаем, как читать Андрея Платонова.” – “It seems that we will never find out how to read Andrei Platonov.” The key has fallen away in the waters of time, explains Valentin Kurbatov… a particularly fitting phrase for The Juvenile Sea.

Of course I prefer back doors and loose windows to lost keys because I don’t think there’s any single correct way to read a book or writer. And all those layers of cryptic words and meaning are why a stubborn reader like me so enjoys Platonov. Rather than write about the entire story, which could take a month or two, I’ll mention a jumble of the oddities and happenings that drew me in on the first pages, then list a few of the themes they raise. If you want to learn more about the whole story, Thomas Seifrid’s book Andrei Platonov summarizes some of the technical themes in The Juvenile Sea here, on Google books.

The Juvenile Sea begins as an engineer and electrician, Nikolai Vermo, crosses the steppe in the southeast Soviet Union on foot, spending his days staving off boredom by imagining himself as a machinist, pilot, or geologist. He finds himself at the home of Adrian Umrishchev, director of a state farm for raising meat; Vermo presents papers that ordered him to the farm. Umrishchev is reading an ancient book with old words, about Ivan the Terrible. On The Juvenile Sea’s third page, Umrishchev says he resolved a housing crisis with the afore-mentioned pumpkin shells. He soon describes how he’d been placed on the rolls of the “unexplained” (невыясненные) after demobilization from the Soviet apparatus. Vermo and Umrishchev talk into the night. Here’s the phrase that indicates morning has arrived: “Ночь, теряя свой смысл, заканчивалась” – “Night, losing its point/meaning/purpose, was ending.”

Light and Dark. I withered when I read that phrase about night, and I kept returning to it as I read The Juvenile Sea: the sun as a source of power is a key piece of the story, and brightness and mentions of electricity link into typical themes from Soviet propaganda and socialist realism, along with more metaphorical aspects of light, such as enlightenment.

Generations. The phrase also struck me on a more emotional level because of the mention of loss of purpose. Umrishchev’s name is rooted in “die” and even his breathing feels tired; he gives off an air of boredom and doubt. And of course he was “unexplained” – talk about lacking purpose! – until he become fully explained through practical work. At the end of the story we see two couples, one young and setting out to America (!) for a business trip, the other old, staying behind.

The Dark Side of Sotsrealism. A horrible sadness – starting with тоска (I’ll just call it deep melancholy) in Vermo’s heart in the second sentence – flows through The Juvenile Sea… along with Platonov’s characters’ optimism. Of course there are plenty of enthusiastic workers in socialist realism, but they don’t carry this kind of toska. Or so many rats: rats run over one character as she sleeps, though she doesn’t hear them. It’s those jarring combinations that make Platonov’s writing feel so wonderfully convoluted and oddly real.

The Great Pumpkin. Russian Dinosaur’s mention of The Velveteen Rabbit in a blog post (and a college course) about socialist realism inspires me to invite Linus van Pelt’s Great Pumpkin into my post: Soviet-era promises of a bright future (the good old светлое будущее), communism, and even superlative meat production were about as likely to materialize as the Great Pumpkin. Belief is at the root of my fascination with the huge pumpkins in The Juvenile Sea: my first thought was to wonder if such pumpkins were possible. I later reminded myself that real reality didn’t matter because I was reading a piece of work that corrupts socialist realism, a myth-laden genre, and its language.

P.S. Platonov’s Life. I’ve been reading and enjoying Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin’s Writers, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Among other things, Westerman mentions Platonov’s technical education and experience (some of which dovetails with The Juvenile Sea), difficulties publishing, and relationship with Maxim Gorky. I’ll write more about Engineers of the Soul later, probably in a nonfiction roundup post.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: Rather difficult, linguistically, culturally, and most of all, logically, 3.75-4.0/5.00.

Up Next: Definitely *not* Iurii Arabov’s Орлеан (Orleans), a Big Book shortlister that reads easily but felt unconvincing and unfocused at best, kitschy and overwritten at worst. I abandoned it after about 20%.

Disclosures: Overlook Press provided me with a review copy of Engineers of the Soul, thank you!

Photo credit: Three-foot high pumpkin (is that sleepable?) photo from idea22, via

Monday, June 20, 2011

Boiashov’s Stone Woman

I’ll be blunt: Il’ia Boiashov’s Каменная баба (The Stone Woman, more on the title below) just isn’t my kind of book, and not liking it was especially disappointing after Boiashov’s wonderful The Tank Driver or “White Tiger” (past post). Subject matter probably has a lot to do with my disappointment. Tank Driver is about World War Two, which interests me, but Stone Woman looks at the phenomenon of strong Russian women through the prism of showbiz and celebrity.

The Stone Woman is a roaches-to-riches tale of a singer from an undetermined province, and Boishov constructs his story by layering Russian myth upon archetypes upon more myth as the woman rises from a squalid childhood to become a Russian TV star and singer. She reminds of Alla Borisovna Pugacheva: her hit song “Миллиард тюльпанов на площади” (“A Billion Tulips on the Square”) is clearly a parodic cousin of Alla Borisovna’s Миллион алых роз (“A Million Scarlet Roses”). I’m not an avid consumer of Russian or Western celebrity news, so I’m sure I missed out on plenty of references.

I think my problem with The Stone Woman is that it’s so overloaded with references to Russian and foreign culture, popular and historical, that it feels gimmicky even if the kitschiness of contemporary culture and the power of the entertainment industry is part of Boiashov’s point. Examples: Tom Cruise gets a cameo and our antiheroine has a granddaughter named Lisa-Marie. I did occasionally laugh at Boiashov’s portrayal of an overbearing Russian woman who attracts endless men, breastfeeds her son so long I wanted to call in Dr. Freud, and lives at the top of a swanky building (see image), but the exaggerated humor was a bit over-the-top for my delicate sensibilities.

I found Boiashov’s schematicness and use of italics annoying, too, especially when he refers to his title character as stone woman. Her real name is Maria Ugarova, which gives you Maria/Mary/oh-you-know-Madonna +ugar, which can be carbon monoxide fumes/poisoning, ecstasy and intoxication, or even industrial wastes of various types, according to my trusty Oxford Russian-English dictionary. Take that, Alla Borisovna: the pug- root of your name promises only fright and intimidation, and a pugach is just a toy gun or an owl. The term каменная баба, kamennaia baba, refers to a stone image of a warrior (or woman) that’s placed on a burial mound, giving Ugarova one heck of an ancient lineage.

But I shrug. That accomplished, I’ll say that The Stone Woman may be a love-it-or-hate-it book: I finished because it’s 158 small pages plus Boiashov’s Q&A session with himself about Russian women. (I won’t even begin to remark on that!) Comments on when I wrote were positive (five stars) but I wondered as I read the novel – as did reviewer mashona on – who’d want to read the book, given that (I’ll summarize some of mashona’s points) Boiashov doesn’t say anything new, most readers aren’t very interested in Alla Borisovna, and Alla Borisovna herself isn’t going to read that she’s being portrayed as (essentially) a prostitute. I suspect The Stone Woman would be most interesting and fun for casual readers and scholars who enjoy dissecting popular culture, excavating myths, fairytale themes, truths, and fantastical elements. There’s plenty there.

If you’re in the market for a novel about an overbearing Russian woman, I’m more likely to recommend Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, translated by Tim Mohr from the German original Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche. The Hottest Dishes leans toward character study and peters out in the last third or so, but I thought Bronsky did an admirable job portraying Rosa Achmetowna, a beautiful (or so she says) battleaxe who claims to mean well. I thought the book was much funnier than Boiashov’s Stone Woman, perhaps because Bronsky’s first-person narrative (from Rosa herself) juxtaposes humor with references to Soviet woes. As I wrote on my other blog, I’ve known plenty of women like Rosa. As bossy women, Rosa and Masha Ugarova certainly share plenty of characteristics, but Rosa, who’s larger than life but still feels real, is far more compelling to me than Boiashov’s grotesque and italicized stone woman.

Up Next: Andrei Platonov’s Ювенильное море (The Juvenile Sea), which reminds me of The Foundation Pit with its combination of difficulty and reward, and Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, which I’m just starting.

Disclosures: I received a copy of The Stone Woman at the Russian booth at BookExpo America. Thank you to Limbus Press for sending it over! I received a review copy of The Hottest Dishes from Regal Literary and have enjoyed speaking with Regal representatives in person and by e-mail.

Image credit: Sergei Kozhin via Wikipedia. The “vysotka,” tall building, at Kotel’nicheskaya Embankment in Moscow, is Ugarova’s home.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

It’s Always Fun Until…: Benigsen’s GenAcide

Vsevolod Benigsen’s novel ГенАцид (GenAcide) reminds me of lines parents and teachers love to use on kids, things like “It’s always fun until someone gets hurt.” Benigsen’s descriptions of Russian village life and residents are gentle but unforgiving, presented with humor that reminds me of Vladimir Voinovich’s depiction of soldier Chonkin’s adventures. But Benigsen morphs farce into tragedy by creating, gradually, tension within his fictional community. Fear not: I won’t reveal specifics of the ending, though it’s clear from the first pages that a happy end is not in store. If that’s not enough, a weapon appears in the first half of the book, not long after a discussion of Chekhov.

In GenAcide, Benigsen describes a village, Bol’shie Ushchery, in which each resident is given, according to a presidential order, a piece of Russian literature to learn. Quickly. There will be a test. The project name, “ГенАцид(GenAcide), stands for Государственная Единая Национальная Идея – roughly State Unifying National Idea. It sounds like “genocide.” Book distribution is delegated to the town’s librarian, Anton Pakhomov, a historian who has nothing in common with his neighbors and sees history as “бардак,” a word for brothel that has come to mean, essentially, a terrible mess.

Book distribution goes okay and residents take to reciting their works in public and at parties. Even local unity, however, is not guaranteed: one resident balks at receiving Andrei Platonov’s Чевенгур (Chevengur) and things start falling apart in a big way when cliques – e.g. prose against poetry – develop and rivals fight. Some of this is very funny, including residents’ neologisms for describing themselves as GenAcide participants. I particularly appreciated a character who speaks his own odd form of Russian: he receives Kruchenykh to memorize. Zaum, indeed!

After all the humor, GenAcide concludes with jarring actions of a violent mob and a character’s thoughts that Russians have a tendency toward chaos and problems. I won’t say more than that… but I will say that I was surprised to read Lev Danilkin’s review, which finds Russophobia in the book. Danilkin enjoyed much of Benigsen’s laugh-out-loud humor but concludes by calling the book “Остроумный, но неприятный роман,” a “witty but unpleasant novel.” He doesn’t like the ending. Neither does Maya Kucherskaya, who thinks the finale doesn’t fit what precedes. She thinks Benigsen lacks empathy and says the book is too realistic, not schematic enough for farce.

I’m not Russian but I read GenAcide very, very differently, far less literally than Danilkin and Kucherskaya. I didn’t find Russophobia at all but a universal, well-constructed book about myth, a parable-like account of the consequences of attempting to use culture – in this case, Russian literature and its surrounding myths – to create a politically expedient national unity, something that’s elusive (perhaps mythical?) in a pure and benign form. Of course part of the problem with mythmaking is that truths and stories tend to be incomplete, and GenAcide’s creators follow the pattern by, often, commanding that people receive chunks of works, like chapters six and seven of Evgenii Onegin or chapters from Saltykov-Shchedrin. Receiving literary works out of context is only one reason residents have difficulty understanding them: one woman can’t even read.

Benigsen pours in many other layers of myth. One example: Pakhomov, who has written about myth, can’t bring himself to take down materials hanging in the “military-historical corner” of his library because the corner feels like a monument to Soviet mythmaking. And Benigsen’s characters felt very obviously (arche)typical to me, offering another hint that Benigsen never aimed for a literal, realistic reading of GenAcide. Beyond Pakhomov, who’s a typical intelligent out-of-his-element, Benigsen offers up a tractor driver (!), a World War 2 partisan, a Central Asian immigrant, a young, pregnant postal worker who steams open a letter to her baby’s father and contemplates how to handle the information… and so on. Yes, everybody feels absolutely vivid, real, and funny, even cozy, at the start of the book but that’s largely because we already know them and their stereotypical situations, both comical and, later, tragic, from elsewhere, from books, TV series, and even the news.

I could write lots more but will mention just one other way Benigsen removes the residents of Bol’shie Ushchery from reality. We learn fairly early in the book that they weren’t counted in a census, something Russians tend to dislike. (I’ve even read scholarly article about this.) Many BU citizens lack documents, don’t know their ages, and can’t explain their jobs. Without documents or real biographies, some are, writes Benigsen, “как дети в дремучем лесу,” “like children in a thick forest,” reinforcing that the characters are the stuff of folktales with uncertain, even composite identities. And documentless people are nonentities in the eyes of government bureaucracy, making them an oddly perfect choice for a project with a name like GenAcide.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3.0-3.5, moderately difficult in parts, with slang and lots of literary references, but the story itself moves along quickly, with humor, making the reading feel effortless.

Up Next: Il’ia Boiashov’s Каменная баба (The Stone Woman), another book that’s heavily about myth. It’s far, far less forgiving than GenAcide as it looks at showbiz.

Disclosures: I received a copy of GenAcide at the London Book Fair from display of the publisher, Vremya, in the Russian pavilion. Thanks to all!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bykov Wins NatsBest (Again)

Dmitrii Bykov won the 2011 National Bestseller Award (NatsBest) for his novel Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Bykov is a repeat winner of the NatBest: he won in 2006 for Boris Pasternak. Ostromov is the final book of a trilogy, following Оправдание (Justification) and Орфография (Orthography).’s listing for all three novels in one volume, which weighs in at 992 pages and 1345 grams, includes brief descriptions.

Update, June 6, 2011: Given Dmitrii Bykov's high public profile, I wondered how long this would take... reports that Vadim Levental', chair of the NatsBest Organizational Committee, expressed his dissatisfaction with Bykov's win. My summary: Levental' said Bykov is already well-known and widely read therefore doesn't fit the award's goal of finding a book with unrealized potential to become an intellectual bestseller. shows jury voting tied at two each for Bykov and Figl'-Migl', leaving jury chair Kseniia Sobchak to cast the deciding vote. She voted for Bykov but expressed her preference for Mikhail Elizarov's Мультики ('Toons), which won one jury vote.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

BookExpo America 2011: Odds & Ends on Russian Books & Programs

I always seem to enjoy BookExpo America, but this year’s BEA was particularly fun thanks to increased interest in Russian literature: Russia will be the Global Market Forum country in 2012. A brief summary of a press conference about Global Market Forum, posted by BEA director Steve Rosato, mentions plans to bring more than 40 Russian writers to New York. Needless to say, I can’t wait!

This year’s BEA program included two Russian programs that covered, among other things, a bilingual reading from 2017 with Olga Slavnikova and Marian Schwartz, who translated the book for Overlook, plus an introduction to four writers – Irina Bogatyreva, Polina Kliukina, Pavel Kostin, and Andrei Kuzechkin – who were Debut Prize winners or nominees. Kostin and Kuzechkin’s Rooftop Anesthesia and Mendeleev Rock, respectively, were published, in Andrew Bromfield’s translation, by Glas in 2011, and three of Kliukina’s stories, in Anne O. Fisher’s translation, are in the Squaring the Circle anthology, also from Glas.

2011 releases of newly translated Russian books from American publishers include, listed by publication date:

Twelve Who Don’t Agree, by Valery Panyushkin, translated by Marian Schwartz, due out July 16, from Europa Editions. For a taste of Panyushkin, try the recent New York Times piece “Was It Something I Wrote?” I’m looking forward to reading Twelve.

Apricot Jam, a story collection by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by ? (I’ll see if I can get the name and add it), due out in September, from Counterpoint. (PDF catalogue) Since Counterpoint’s description refers to the eight stories, written in the 1990s, as “paired,” I’m figuring they’ve preserved (no pun intended) the Apricot Jam story cycle presented in this Azbuka-klassika Russian edition and a book on my shelf.

Thirst, a novel by Andrei Gelasimov, translated by Marian Schwartz, due out November 22, , from Amazon Crossing. I read and enjoyed Thirst years ago, before I started blogging, and was interested to see that Amazon Crossing will be publishing several other Gelasimov books.

The Letter Killers Club, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull, due out December 6, from New York Review Books. This is a great incentive for me to finally read some Krzhizhanovsky. NYRB also has more Vasily Grossman and Andrey Platonov on the way, in the more distant future.

I’ll be writing more about these books later this year. [Edit: A previous post covers other translation releases for 2011.]

One other note: I finished out my four days in New York with an unexpected visit to the Chelsea Art Museum for a fantastic exhibit: Concerning the Spiritual Tradition in Russian Art: Selections from the Kolodzei Art Foundation. I spent several hours at the museum with Tatiana and Natalia Kolodzei, who gave me a personal tour of the exhibit. If you’re in the New York area, I highly recommend a visit. The exhibit closes June 11; Natalia will offer a gallery talk on June 11 at 4 p.m.

That’s it for today. I’ll be back tomorrow with a brief post on the winner of the NatsBest.

Up Next: The 2011 NatsBest winner, then Vsevolod Benigsen’s ГенАцид (GenAcide). I’m looking forward to getting back to my usual reading pace after a spring of colds and wonderful but exhausting travel.

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve discussed translated fiction with all the publishers named in this post.