Sunday, September 25, 2011

2011 NOSE Long List

It’s been a long time since I’ve methodically gone through an entire long or short list for an award, adding links and descriptions… so here you go: the entire 25-member 2011 НОС/NOSE award long list, with a few notes, including links to previous posts about the four books I’ve read. As usual, I’m sure some of the title translations are awful due to lack of context. The NOSE award is a program of the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund.

I’m also sure more summaries, excerpts, and full texts are floating around in the Runet, but this warm fall day keeps calling me away from my computer! Though a few books sound interesting, I can’t say I found anything new on the list that I feel compelled to seek out right away, particularly since there seem to be a lot of short story collections and nonfiction books on the list. Marina Palei, whom I’ve been meaning to read for some time, is probably at the top of my list.

1. Andrei Astvatsaturov: Скунскамера (Skunskamera), a book that’s a veteran of long and short lists.

2. Karine Arutiunova: Пепел красной коровы (Ash from the Red Cow), a collection of very short stories.

3. Marina Akhmedova: Дневник смертницы. Хадижа (Diary of a Death Girl. Khadizha. [a key title word can mean a prisoner condemned to death or a suicide bomber]), a novel about a Dagestani girl that Akhmedova based on stories of real girls in the Northern Caucasus.

4. Nikolai Baitov: Думай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak). Short stories (41 in 320 pages) from a poet.

5. Il’ia Boiashov: Каменная баба (The Stone Woman) (previous post)

6. Iana Vagner: Вонгозеро (Vongozero), a debut novel about a nasty flu; the book grew out of Live Journal posts.

7. Igor’ Vishnevetskii: Ленинград (Leningrad), a novella set in Leningrad during World War 2 that Vishnevetskii says is a postscript of sorts to Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg because he imagined Belyi’s characters in his own book. For more: interview with Vishnevetskii here.

8. Natal’ia Galkina: Табернакль (Tabernacle)

9. Dj Stalingrad: Исход (could be Exodus or something like The Outcome), apparently about leftwing skinheads.

10. Dmitrii Danilov: Горизонтальное положение (Horizontal Position) (previous post)

11. Nikolai Kononov: Фланёр (The Flâneur), a novel set in the 1930s and 1940s. ( review)

12. Aleksandr Markin: Дневник 2006–2011 (Diary 2006-2011), Live Journal posts from Russia’s first LJ blogger. (This seems to be a common thread this year…) Comments on note Markin’s interest in German literature and European architecture.

13. Aleksei Nikitin: Истеми (İstemi), a novel about bored students who create a geopolitical game and get in trouble. (The description on the Ad Marginem site is much more complicated.) Risk, anyone?

14. Marina Palei: Дань саламандре (beginning end) (Tribute [the monetary kind] for the Salamander) was also long-listed for the National Bestseller award.

15. Viktor Pelevin: Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы (Pineapple Water for the Beautiful Lady), a bestselling story collection.

16. Andrei Rubanov: Тоже родина (Also a Motherland), a story collection.

17. Maria Rybakova: Гнедич (Gnedich), a novel in verse about Russian poet Nikolai Gnedich, the first Russian translator of The Iliad. Rybakova is also a poet. Excerpt

18. Figl’-Migl’: Ты так любишь эти фильмы (You Love Those Films So Much), a NatsBest finalist that lost in a tie breaker vote when Kseniia Sobchak cast her vote for Dmitrii Bykov instead. Sobchak said in an interview that she doesn’t consider F-M’s book literature. She also compares Bykov to McDonald’s and says she hates his ЖД (Living Souls) (previous post). Take that!

19. Margarita Khemlin: Крайний (Krainii: my previous post explains the title)

20. Andrei Sharyi and Iaroslav Shimov: Корни и корона (Roots and the Crown), essays about Austro-Hungary. ( review)

21. Mikhail Shishkin: Письмовник (Letter-Book) (previous post)

22. Nina Shnirman: Счастливая девочка (Lucky Girl) (excerpt); a book about a girl’s childhood that includes World War 2. I’m not clear if it’s strictly memoir or somewhat fictionalized. Either way, it was a Cosmo book of the month!

23. Gleb Shul’piakov: Фес (Fes or Fez, as you prefer), a novel. The publisher’s description says Fes is about a man who brings his wife to the maternity hospital and, when left to his own devices, ends up in a basement in an unidentified eastern city… sounds like more warped reality.

24. Aleksandr Iablonskii: Абраша (Abrasha), a novel with a vague summary.

25. Irina Iasina: История болезни (Case History) appears to be a memoir about having multiple sclerosis.

Up next: I’m hoping to finish Sergei Kuznetsov’s Хоровод воды (The Round Dance of Water) in time for a post next week.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Lermontov

My favorite Russian L writer has been with me since I began reading in Russian in the ‘80s: Mikhail Lermontov. My Russian literature class read Lermontov’s story “Тамань” (“Taman’”) from the novel-in-stories Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time); I read the entire book on my own a couple years later. Rereading and loving the book again two years ago was a treat, both because I could enjoy the quality of the writing so much more (thank goodness, after all those years!) and because Hero continues to be a source of allusions in contemporary Russian fiction. I should add that Lermontov’s poetry was a highlight of my grad school reading list.

Beyond Lermontov, though, my letter L reading has been a little limited... Leonid Leonov’s story Конец мелкого человека (The End of a Petty Man) was intriguingly peculiar (previous post) but now that I have some of his other books—Соть (Soviet River) and Вор (The Thief)—I have yet to pull one off the shelf to read. And then there’s Nikolai Leskov whose Леди Макбет Мценского уезда (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District) I read when I lived in Moscow. Unfortunately, my box of books with Lady Macbeth and other stories got lost somewhere between here and there: the box also contained Lolita and The Brothers Karamazov, so I’ve often wondered what went on in transit. One of these days I’ll buy some sort of replacement Leskov volume. A friend gave me Leskov’s Железная воля (An Iron Will), which I found less interesting than Lady Macbeth (previous post), though fairly easy to read. The blogger known as Amateur Reader, who writes Wuthering Expectations, recently read some Leskov and included fun links in posts. Another L writer on my shelf is Ivan Lazhechnikov, whose Ледяной дом (House of Ice) has been cooling its heels waiting for me for years. Maybe this winter.

Alas, contemporary L writers have yet to endear themselves to me… but maybe something by one of the Lipskerovs—Mikhail or Dmitrii—will grab me. Mikhail Lipskerov’s Белая горячка. Delirium Tremens (no translation needed, I think!) is dedicated to Venichka E and begins with a shot of vodka, so it’s definitely a book that calls for a specific type of reading mood.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Mikhail Lomonosov. Among other things, Lomonosov wrote poetry—I specifically remember his Ода на взятие Хотина (“Ode on the Taking of Khotin”) from my eighteenth-century Russian literature course—and helped reform literary Russian. He was also a scientist who wrote about topics like the uses of glass. Lomonosov and I crossed paths, albeit a couple centuries apart, in Arkhangel’sk, where I was given medallions with his profile. I owe Lomonosov some credit for helping me with my oral exams in Russian literature. I was a very undistinguished student of the history of the Russian language, so was grateful to be able to mention a visit to Arkhangel’sk when Lomonosov came up during my exam. One of my professors, Morton Benson, asked if I’d heard оканье there... the short explanation of оканье is that an unstressed “o” sounds like “o” instead of “a”—оканье can sometimes be heard in northern Russia. At any rate, I don’t remember what, exactly, I told Dr. Benson but I do remember that the unexpected tangent about travel certainly helped me relax.

As always, I look forward to readers’ thoughts on writers with names beginning with L.

Up next: I’m still enjoying Sergei Kuznetsov’s Хоровод воды (The Round Dance of Water), though it’s long…

Image credit: Self-portrait of Lermontov, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

More Awards News & a Bit on Grekova’s Faculty

There are weeks (like, say, last week) when it feels like I can’t check my blog reader or without finding more news about Russian literary awards. Book of the Year winners were named on Wednesday at the Moscow International Book Fair, and I was pleased to see that an eight-volume edition of works by Andrei Platonov, published by Vremia, won the main Book of the Year prize. Prose of the Year went to Olga Slavnikova’s Lightheaded (previous post); the other nominees in the prose category were Mikhail Shishkin’s Letter-Book (previous post) and a book of essays about history by Iakov Gordin. has a full list of winners here, and some short lists are available here.

Then the Yasnaya Polyana award announced its six-book short list on Friday. I don’t know much about any of these writers or books but that, of course, is why I so enjoy following prize lists. The winner will be announced in late September or early October.

  • Ergali Ger’s Кома (Koma) – This novella/long story starts with the phrase “Родом Кома была из Рыбинска”—“Koma was a native of Rybinsk”—which got me interested because I once spent a couple days floating around the Rybinsk Water Reservoir on a research vessel and eating fresh fish.
  • Elena Katishonok’s Жили-были старик со старухой (Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife) (excerpt) – This book was a Booker finalist in 2009.
  • Natal’ia Kliuchareva’s Деревня дураков (Village of Fools) – Kliuchareva is the only writer of the six that I’ve read so far: one of her stories is in the Rasskazy collection. It was one of my favorites. I still, BTW, highly recommend Rasskazy (previous post).
  • Irina Mamaeva’s Земля Гай (Gai Land, where Gai is the name of a settlement)
  • Iurii Mamleev’s Русские походы в тонкий мир (perhaps Russian Hikes/Campaigns Into a Subtle World?) – I still haven’t read much Mamleev, beyond a couple very short stories that I read at the beach recently.
  • Dmitrii Shevarov’s Добрые лица (Kind Faces)

As for I(rina) Grekova’s Кафедра (The Faculty): I realized I don’t have much to say about the book. After Grekova’s shorter Ship of Widows, Hairdresser, and Little Garusov, The Faculty felt a bit long and dispersed: the novel is composed of episodes in the lives of a math (cybernetics, I believe) department’s faculty members and students. The episodes are linked with various degrees of looseness and tightness; lives overlap like my beloved Venn diagrams. Grekova’s writing is, as usual, very readable, and she offers lots of insights and details on life, family, friendship, work, and death, reflecting Soviet reality… despite all that, plus Grekova’s tremendous compassion for her characters, The Faculty didn’t feel, well, special, compared with the other works I’ve read. I think the problem—a relatively minor one, I suppose, since I didn’t skim—is my preference for more tightly focused narratives.

Up Next: Well, there’s Leonid Girshovich’s “Вий”, вокальный цикл Шуберта на слова Гоголя (a title I’ve seen translated as “Viy,” Schubert’s Songs to Gogol’s Words), which I still think is peculiar. I’m also finding it a little repetitive and/or plodding, and definitely very showy so am going to do something I don’t usually do: read a chapter a day but focus more on another book, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Хоровод воды (Water’s Round Dance or The Round Dance of Water), a Big Book finalist. An excerpt, with comments from Kuznetsov, is on Snob. By coincidence, Kuznetsov’s book, which two friends recommended to me very highly, mentions the Rybinsk Water Reservoir in its early pages. Let’s hope this is a sign that it will help me break a streak of unsatisfying books.

Disclosures: Tin House, publisher of Rasskazy, is a publisher I enjoy speaking with about translated fiction.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day 2011 Potpourri: Dovlatov & Two Abandoned Books

Saturday, September 3 was the 70th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Dovlatov, author of The Compromise (previous post), one of my very favorite twentieth-century Russian books. There have been lots of celebrations of Dovlatov’s very short life this year, including awarding the Dovlatov prize on Saturday to Eduard Kochergin, for the story collection Ангелова кукла (Angel's Doll) and Крещенные крестами (Baptized with Crosses), which also won the National Bestseller award last year (previous post). New Yorkers can look forward to a Dovlatov event on October 30, 2011, “A Life Is Too Short,” described as “an evening of literature, music, and documentary images dedicated to Sergei Dovlatov.” I wish New York were closer!

Meanwhile, Dovlatov had a cameo appearance in a book I recently attempted to read but abandoned, Anatolii Naiman’s Каблуков (Kablukov), a novel about a screen writer. Joseph Brodsky also showed up. I’ve probably mentioned before that I have a personal (and perhaps inconsistent) dislike of mentions of writers and other historical figures in fiction… unless they’ve been dead for at least a couple of generations. The namedroppy resurrections of Dovlatov and Brodsky weren’t the primary reason I gave up on Naiman’s book, though: shifts in narrative point of view, heavy shapelessness, and lack of momentum or arc were far more fatal.

Lest I miss out on anything, I checked a couple reviews before putting Kablukov back on the shelf. I found that Time Out called it “не самый увлекательный роман на свете” (“not the most absorbing book in the world”) then learned that Lev Danilkin wrote that it lacks “raison d’Ptre” (hmm, a [sic] might be in order…), comparing it to Panikovsky sawing at a weight in The Golden Calf, looking for gold. Indeed. The first 60 pages of Kablukov contained some interesting material about Soviet-era life and the legacy of the Stalin-era repression, plus lots of allusions, but the text felt so dense and, for me, swampily aimless, that there was no reward for all the heavy lifting. I should add that there was a big fuss in 2005 when Kablukov did not win the Russian Booker.

By comparison, the first 60 or 70 pages of Leonid Girshovich’s peculiar Вий, вокальный цикл Шуберта на слова Гоголя (a title I’ve seen translated as “Viy,” Schubert’s Songs to Gogol’s Words) drew me right in. Girshovich’s novel about collaborators in occupied Kiev is thoroughly literary, too—unusually lively notes in the back explain numerous references—but Girshovich creates sharp, weird scenes, situations, and characters that give the book plenty of raison d’ être. This is a book that works despite my painful reference/subtext deficiencies; I haven’t read Bulgakov’s White Guard, Nabokov’s Gift, or Mann’s Magic Mountain, though at least I’ve read “Viy” and listened to lots of Schubert. Maybe this winter I’ll finally just force myself to read White Guard: I’ve already tried at least three or four times, not counting my attempts at the play version, Days of the Turbins, which I tried and failed to read when it was on my grad school reading list. Maybe this will finally be my year. Hope dies last!

Speaking of abandoned books, I also dumped Aleksei Slapovskii’s Большая книга перемен (The Big Book of Changes). The Big Book is on the short list for the 2011 Big Book award but I think its title is its only hope for winning. Though The Big Book of Changes is far easier reading than the Naiman and Girshovich books, Slapovskii’s portrayal of middle-age friends from high school and a family with some businessmen just didn’t hold my interest, even during a lazy day with Tropical Storm Irene. As with Slapovskii’s They (previous post), the characters and situations felt stereotypically typical and shoulder-shruggingly minor rather than archetypically typical and painfully emblematic because Slapovskii doesn’t portray them from new or unique perspectives. As many Russian reviewers have noted, Slapovskii is also a screenwriter, and the book reads more like the basis for a TV series than a novel. At 640 pages and 585 grams (according to Ozon) The Big Book of Changes certainly is a big book in size, but, based on the first 200 or so pages that I read, Slapovskii missed out, big time, on a big chance to transform a wordy chunk of writing into a big and important social novel. Cutting lots of back story and detail would have been a great start. I’m glad I read electronically.

Up Next: I still need to write about I(rina) Grekova’s Кафедра (The Faculty); the Girshovich book will be along next. (Based on all this recent experience, I should write “if I finish.”) Then I’ll return to Big Book shortlisters: I still have Buida, Bykov, Kuznetsov, and Soloukh to read. A reminder: all the books are online in various formats, here.