Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year! & 2012 Highlights

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I hope 2013 brings you many more Russian books and stories to love, no matter what language you read in. Before moving on to 2013, here are a few highlights from 2012, a year with lots more travel (hence a little less reading!) than I’d expected…

Favorite book by an author I’d already read. Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City (previous post) was one of my favorite books of 2012, a lovely small novel about visiting a city once a month for a year. Danilov’s combination of form and content worked beautifully for me.

Favorite book by an author I’d never read. Marina Stepnova’s Lazar’s Women/The Women of Lazarus (previous post), which was shortlisted for the National Bestseller, Big Book, and Booker awards, winning two third prizes from Big Book. If you’re looking for a family saga with touches of postmodernism and perfectly positioned пошлость, this is your novel.

Favorite book that friends didn’t seem to like. Sure, I described Alexander Ilichevsky’s The Anarchists (previous post) as “lumpy” and, yes, I’ll agree with those of you who think some of the tangents are too long… but I still enjoyed the book very much, thanks to Ilichevsky’s combination of old and new. A perfect book to read on the deck during the summer.

Favorite travel. All of it! Two trips to Moscow, first for the International Congress of Literary Translators then for workshops and the Non/fiction book fair, were, by far, my biggest and best travel surprises of the year. A week in New York for BookExpo America and Read Russia! events was a lot of fun, too, and the American Literary Translators Association conference, in Rochester, NY, was a great time as well, despite the untimely late-night appearance of a bedbug.

What’s coming up in 2013? Top priority is getting rid of an intransigent cold!... Thanks to those trips to Moscow, my bookshelves are more loaded now than they’ve ever been, meaning I have so many reading choices I don’t even know what to say I’m most looking forward to… As for travel, the 2013 ALTA conference will be in Bloomington, Indiana, which I’m especially excited about because a friend and former co-worker from Moscow lives near Indianapolis. I’m also waiting to hear more about a possible Russian translation workshop in England next summer… Beyond all that, the Read Russia! program continues and I have some fun translation projects to work on after the holidays.

Thank you! Most important, a big thanks to all of you for visiting the blog, leaving comments, recommending books, and/or sending me notes and books. I enjoy hearing from you and was glad to see so many of you this year... I hope to see and meet more of you in 2013! Here’s to lots more happy reading in the new year!

Disclosures.  The usual. Previous posts that I referenced in this post contain further disclosure information about individual books and relationships.

Up next. Aleksei Slapovskii’s День денег (Money’s Day/A Day for Money) and Valerii Popov’s Плясать до смерти (To Dance to Death). The incredible lightness of reading Olga Lukas and Andrei Stepanov’s Prince Sobakin’s Elixir became too cloying, like trying to make a meal of meringue.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Busybody: Khemlin’s Investigator

Where to start? A murder. A stabbing that hits the heart. May 18, 1952. Klara Tsetkin Street, Chernigov, Ukraine. The victim is Lilia Vorobeichik. The man sent to investigate the case is Mikhail Tsupkoi. Case closed early, murder solved, pinned on Roman Moiseenko, who’d been romantically involved with Vorobeichik. Moiseenko is dead, suicide.

The book is Margarita Khemlin’s Дознаватель (The Investigator), and Tsupkoi, a decorated World War 2 veteran is the title figure and first-person narrator. I should note that Tsupkoi says he’s a дознаватель, an investigator who doesn’t normally handle serious crimes. But he’s sent to handle the Vorobeichik case on his own because the department’s so busy.

Tsupkoi stays busy, too, continuing to investigate the Vorobeichik case after it’s closed. According to seamstress Polina Laevskaya, Vorobeichik’s friend, there are rumors going around town. People don’t believe Moiseenko did it, and Tsupkoi is accused of trying to keep the story quiet because Vorobeichik was Jewish. And so Tsupkoi spends the rest of the book questioning and requestioning Vorobeichik’s friends, neighbors, and family, including her twin sister Eva. As Khemlin said on Echo of Moscow’s “Book Casino,” Tsupkoi thinks everything can be figured out, calculated (рассчитать is her verb) but this is a story about “безумная любовь,” we’ll call that “crazy love.” And crazy is impossible to calculate. Other factors in this dense, crowded book: more death, a resurrection, births, betrayals and infidelity, theft, matzo, adoption, tailored clothing, knives, and gold.

The Investigator is one of the most complex, absurd-at-the-very-core, and bizarrely rewarding books I’ve read in ages: though I kept reading and reading, hypnotized as Tsupkoi zigged, zagged, clomped, and tromped his way around Chernigov, Oster, and the last decade or so to question and listen, it took more than half the book to realize what Khemlin was up to. I knew all along that the novel was literary fiction with elements of detective novel, soap opera, Jewish history, Ukrainian history, Soviet history, World War 2 history, and more...

But then the book spirals more sharply, drawing Tsupkoi closer and closer to the essence of what went wrong for Lilia Vorobeichik, the other characters, and society. I’ll attempt to explain… Though it’s often difficult to keep track of who’s who in The Investigator—there must be dozens of characters of various ages and importance—the book simultaneously chronicles family life and creates a protocol of an unofficial investigation. The ever-present Big Picture in the background is unrelenting: as Khemlin noted on Echo, the post-war atmosphere in the Soviet Union wasn’t easy. She mentions the doctors’ plot, Zionist conspiracy theories, and the interconnectedness of everyday people. That interconnectedness and the misunderstandings it can create are crucial in The Investigator: everybody knows everybody’s business, yards and houses are close, and Tsupkoi, investigator, is the novel’s chief busybody, reaching, always, for the most personal, hidden truths, which he finally finds at the end of the book. Most important, most of those truths reach, somehow, back to World War 2. One character was a partisan. Another’s children burned. Tsupkoi’s war buddy, Evsei, is in the book, too, and there’s even a bag of gold that includes some fillings. The stories build and build, generating pain and tension that become unbearable by the end of the book. There is a confession. Of sorts. As a review in НГ-Ex Libris notes, given Khemlin’s balance of good and bad, every reader will have an opinion about the punishment side of things; Ex Libris put The Investigator on their list of 25 best fiction and poetry books of 2012.

What fascinated me most about The Investigator was how and how much people talk. Tsupkoi questions and questions and people talk and talk, creating some paradoxes: Tsupkoi is an investigator and the novel’s narrator, but huge swaths are told by other characters, who describe their lives and relationships. They tell stories within stories. But is Tsupkoi a faithful protocol writer and narrator? Who knows? Either way, the book is, as Vladimir Guga’s excellent piece for Peremeny.ru notes, polyphonic, because Khemlin offers up varied voices, including one that’s not audible because its owner can’t speak. (I should also note that Guga thinks Khemlin does well writing the book from a man’s perspective.) No matter how varied the voices, though, the war keeps coming back. As Khemlin said on Echo about Tsupkoi, “Выиграть войну можно. Но как жить потом, не знает никто.” – “It’s possible to win the war. But nobody knows how to live after that.”

I’ve read all Khemlin’s books and translated two of her stories plus an excerpt from Klotsvog so it’s interesting for me to watch how she addresses the war, over and over again, in her fiction. I remember her saying (though I don’t remember where) that she grew up living among the aftereffects of the war and that compels her to write. When I read her collection The Living Line, I wrote that the book’s unconnected novellas seemed to meld into “a mural that feels like a small world: Jewish heritage, settings in Ukraine, and the feel that someone is sitting with you, telling tales.” Now, after four books, I feel as if all Khemlin’s books meld into an even bigger mural that blends the personal and the public, the Jewish and the non-Jewish, telling stories that are individual but universal, where characters often speak in Soviet-era clichés, use dark, dark humor, and describe things nobody should ever experience.

I think what I find most mysterious and, thus, appealing about Khemlin’s writing is that, whether I’m reading or translating, nearly everything (except, perhaps, the occasional “суржик,” a blend of Russian and Ukrainian) feels relatively simple at first, as if I’m reading the barest, most factual of fiction… but then her writing evolves into something more complex as I realize how much history and emotion she packs into her words.

Disclaimers: The usual. Margarita gave me my copy of The Investigator.

Up Next: 2012 year-end post. Then Olga Lukas and Andrei Stepanov’s Prince Sobakin’s Elixir and, most likely, Aleksei Slapovskii’s День денег (Money’s Day)… I started reading Slapovskii, which I liked, but then got sick (again! or relapsed?) so went for the extreme lightness of the Lukas/Stepanov book, a perfect accompaniment to lots of coughing and snow.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Crossing Over: Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad

There’s a certain category of books—including today’s subject, Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad—that are nigh on scary to write about. Voroshilovgrad, which I read in Russian, in Zaven Babloyan’s translation from the original Ukrainian, isn’t just a novel: it’s a wonderfully mind-occupying and mind-bending experience in the form of a first-person narrative from a man, German Korolev, who returns to his childhood places after his brother, proprietor of a service station, goes missing.

Voroshilovgrad crosses, with tremendous grace, back and forth between lyrical dreaminess and brutal nightmarishness, and Zhadan works in lots of absurdity… it’s absurdity of the sort that feels normal in books set in the Former Soviet Union, making everything in Voroshilovgrad feel paradoxically both real and bizarre. There are cornfields, grabby criminals, members of the Штунда/Stunda sect, a bus driver asleep at the wheel, a refugee camp inhabited by nomads wanting to head west, and the most bizarre soccer game I’ve ever read.

When I asked Zaven, who gave me a copy of Voroshilovgrad in September at the Translators Congress in Moscow, if there was anything he wanted to tell readers about the book, here’s what he wrote:
Тому, кто никогда не жил на Востоке Украины, многие сцены должны казаться совершенной фантасмагорией -- а они этнографически точны. Из локального, ностальгического и мистического Жадану, мне кажется, удалось сложить нечто, выражающее уникальные и универсальные чувства -- чувства, какими всегда пропитаны великие истории. 
In my not-so-graceful [but with dumb error corrected!] translation: 
Many scenes probably seem absolutely phantasmagorical to someone who’s never lived in Eastern Ukraine, but they’re ethnographically accurate. I think Zhadan managed, using the local, the nostalgic, and the mystical, to create something that expresses unique and universal feelings, the sorts of feelings that always permeate great stories/histories.
I see lots of direct connections between Zaven’s comments and the element of the book that stood out most for me: constant crossings of temporal, geographical, national, and state-of-mind boundaries. A favorite example of the latter: German’s sweet, outdoor morning nap is interrupted by an inexplicable warm draft of air, a sensation that he realizes, eyes still closed, emanates from a bus. Of course the bus is an Ikarus that’s arrived to take German and his teammates (and what teammates they are!) to play that bizarre soccer game against a bunch of gas industry workers. This isn’t the first time German rides on an Ikarus, a name that indicates flying, something that’s important here, both literally and metaphorically. Zhadan includes crop dusters, dreams of flight, and a line about childhood ambitions that’s on the cover of my book, “Все мы хотели стать пилотами. Большинство из нас стало лузерами.” (“We all wanted to become pilots. Most of us became losers.”)

There are lots of on-the-ground trips by train and car—and I don’t use the word “trips” lightly: the book feels like “trips” in many ways—in Voroshilovgrad, too, making the novel feel like an extended road trip that harkens back to The Wizard of Oz. There’s even a mention at a funeral of the Yellow Brick Road, plus there are scenes set in cornfields. We’re certainly not in Kansas but the reference to Oz (and/or its rough Russian equivalent) feels perfectly fitting, because of blurry borders between real and imagined.

Postcard-like photo of Kliment
Voroshilov monument in Lugansk:
it (kinda sorta) gets a mention in the novel.
In case you’re wondering, Zhadan doesn’t write much in Voroshilovgrad about Voroshilovgrad, though the city is another example of the local, nostalgic, and mystical aspects of Voroshilovgrad that Zaven mentioned. For one thing, Voroshilovgrad, named for Kliment Voroshilov, a local man with a checkered history, no longer exists because it’s been rerenamed Lugansk (pronounced Luhansk). Voroshilovgrad comes up when German and a woman, Olga, find shelter from the rain in the Lenin room of a children’s camp (now, there’s Soviet myth for you!) where Olga once worked. German mentions that his childhood German teacher used to hand out sets of postcards with scenes from cities, like Voroshilovgrad, that the children had to describe even if they’d never visited. German compares this sort of uninformed description with demands that he live by someone else’s rules, something he’s dealing with in situations related to his brother’s absence.

Later in the book, Olga finds a packet of Voroshilovgrad postcards, saying she bought lots of them years ago to send to a penpal in Germany. Now, she says, the entire episode feels like something from another life, another city, and another country, with completely other people. That’s a lot of crossing over. “Наверное, эти картинки и есть мое прошлое,” she says, meaning “Those pictures probably are my past.” Though Olga says she was supposed to forget this past, she can’t: it’s a part of her, perhaps even the best part.

A bit of background: Voroshilovgrad won BBC Ukraine’s Book of the Year award in 2010. Liza Novikova’s review of Voroshilovgrad for Izvestiia notes that Zaven’s translation is a retranslation (an improvement!), adding that usually only classics are honored with retranslations. Liza also calls Zhadan a cult post-Soviet writer and refers to Voroshilovgrad as a “манифест поколения” (“a generation’s manifesto”).

Also: Zhadan’s “The Owners,” translated by Anastasia Lakhtikova is in Best European Fiction of 2012; the book says the piece is an excerpt from Гімн демократичної молоді (Anthem of Democratic Youth). I enjoyed it, too.

Disclaimers: I know Zaven Babloyan, Liza Novikova, and Anastasia Lakhtikova in my real and virtual lives. Zaven gave me a copy of Voroshilovgrad. It was a great gift: I think his translation reads very nicely, successfully creating a voice able to convey, often at very short notice, the lyricism, humor, and absurdity I mentioned. It was a pleasure to read his work.

Up next: Another book set in Ukraine, Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator, then something else TBD… I’ve brought back so many books from Moscow that I have an embarrassing number of choices! I think I’m leaning toward Valerii Popov’s To Dance to Death, which several friends have praised very highly.

Image Credit: Alex Chupryna, via Wikipedia

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Moscow Trip Report, November-December Snowstorm Edition

It was, put mildly, a supremely pleasant surprise to spend last week in Moscow: how could I refuse an invitation from the Institute of Translation to spend three days in workshops on publishing and translation, plus excursions to the Non/fiction book fair? I added a few days to the beginning and end of my trip so I could see friends, go the Big Book award ceremony, and buy books, making for perfect business-with-pleasure travel. A few highlights:

Big Book. A huge thank you to Georgy Urushadze, Big Book’s general director, for putting me on the list for the Big Book evening: it was great fun to attend my first Russian book award ceremony and see friends and colleagues at the event. Though I was a little surprised that Daniil Granin won two awards—the top prize from the jury for My Lieutenant plus a special award for honor/merit/virtue—Georgy explained to me the next afternoon that special awards are determined long before the ceremony but votes from the jury (a.k.a. a “literary academy” of around 100 people) are tallied just before the ceremony. I’ve read so little of Granin that I have no opinion about his awards… but I was very happy to see Marina Stepnova win third prize from readers and the jury—her Lazar’s Women feels like a “big” book to me—and for Maria Galina to win second prize from readers for her engaging Mole Crickets. I still have a bunch of this year’s finalists on the shelf, including Granin’s book and Valery Popov’s To Dance to Death. For a fun bit of reportage from Big Book, take a look at this video concerning Кто убил русскую литературу?” (“Who Killed Russian Literature”)—the reporter, one Oleg Koronnyi, seemed always to be standing in front of me when I was sitting so I’m relieved to learn he was working on something important. A Big Book bonus: the винегрет/beet salad was a great snack.

The Workshops. I must admit I was a bit puzzled when the Institute invited me to Moscow for three days of workshops and book fair visits: I’m so used to having specific tasks when I travel, e.g. “give a talk/reading” or “write ten brief articles about this conference,” that I couldn’t believe my only formal responsibility was to contribute in roundtable discussions about publishing Russian literature in translation. I confess I’m sometimes a rather slow study so it took me a couple days to figure out this was a very good thing indeed. I know it sounds painfully cheesy (or like I’m sucking up to someone, something I have absolutely no existential or other need to do!) but all the interaction, learning, and contributions began to feel effortless, thanks to a casual atmosphere and a fantastic international group of publishers, translators, literary agents, and others with a professional interest in Russian literature. A few examples from the group: Ola Wallin, a Swedish publisher (Ersatz) and translator who brings a diverse selection of Russian fiction, from Andrei Platonov to Dmitrii Glukhovskii, to diverse Swedish readers… Christine Mestre, who’s president of the Prix Russophonie and founded Les Journées du Livre Russe festival, and makes me think Paris in February sounds like the very best of ideas… Margherita Crepax, who translates into Italian and won the Premio Gorky for her translation of Sasha Sokolov’s School for Fools; Margherita told how two of her translations—Tolstaya’s The Slynx and Platonov’s Dzhan—were commissioned but never published… I could go on and on and on but will just add that the only bad development was the weather: I love a multiple-day storm with lots of snow, drizzle, sleet, and related precipitation, but "our" storm created horribly slippery sidewalks that caused falls and even a bunch of broken bones. Ouch!

Non/fiction with drizzle.
Non/fiction. I’m relieved that the Non/fiction book fair didn’t let me down! I’d been wanting to go for several years and was glad it lived up to its reputation for fun and usefulness: no wonder people will wait in the cold, wet snow for tickets. For someone like me who doesn’t go to book fairs to buy or sell rights, it’s difficult to describe the difference between Non/fiction and the Moscow International Book Fair, which I visited in September. Many (or at least some!) of the exhibitors were the same—from big houses like Eksmo and AST to the small railroad publisher I chatted with about vocabulary in September—but Non/fiction calls itself, rightly, an intellectual book fair and creates a far cozier atmosphere for discussion thanks to its location in the Central House of Artists instead of a pavilion in what used to be the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy. Potentially relevant bonus: The coffee vendors were better placed! Non/fiction was a great chance to see friends, colleagues, and books, many of which were, yes, works of fiction.

Things I carried home:
books...  plus German throat lozenges  I wish 

I could buy in the U.S. and a ticket to Non/fiction
Book Acquisitions. I didn’t bring home as many books as I did in September, largely because I caught a bit of a cold and didn’t have enough energy and curiosity for rigorous book shopping. I still managed to bring back a nice little stack of books, though, including Oleg Ermakov’s The Arithmetic of War, which many people have recommended, Maya Kucherksaya’s The God of Rain, Mark Kharitonov’s To See More (after talking with Margherita Crepax, who’s translated Kharitonov, I felt guilty about never having read him!), Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Brother Laurus (literally Laurel), and Anton Utkin’s The Road into Snowfall (?), a title that felt weather-appropriate. Marina Aromshtam, a friend of two friends, very kindly gave me copies of two of her books, including When Angels Rest, a finalist for the “youth” category of this year’s Yasnaya Polyana award. A bonus: when I gave Natasha Perova of Glas a copy of Everything Matters!, by Maine writer Ron Currie, Jr., in exchange she gave me Still Waters Run Deep: Young Women’s Writing from Russia, which contains translations by several of you. I’m looking forward to reading your work!

Finally… I had another lovely visit with Vladislav Otroshenko and am pleased to say that my translation of his “Языки Нимродовой башни” (“The Languages of Nimrod’s Tower”) will be published in Subtropics, in January… My airplane reading included the December issue of Snob, which I bought at the airport to spend my last rubles. Snob feels considerably less snobby now than last year when I had a trial subscription, and it was fun to open it up somewhere between Moscow and Zurich and find Stas Zhitskii’s piece listing three books about cities, including Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City, which I liked so much; the other two books, BTW, were Maks Frai’s Stories of Old Vilnius and Alexander Ilichevsky’s City of Sunset, about Jerusalem… A dictionary of fashionable words was good company on the Zurich-to-Boston flight, even if I have my doubts that a word I’ve been using for about two decades—облом/oblom—can qualify as fashionable for a book about language in the twenty-first century. Maybe I’m just way ahead of my time?...

Disclaimers. A big thank you to the Institute of Translation, with which I collaborate directly and indirectly through Read Russia!, for bringing me back to Moscow, to Georgy Urushadze for inviting me (at my request) to Big Book, and to many, many friends and colleagues for tea, time, and advice.

Up Next. Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad (I realize this probably feels like Waiting for Godot by now…), Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator, and then maybe Granin’s Lieutenant or Popov’s To Dance to Death, which I’m especially curious about after hearing many good comments… Now that I seem to be back and settled in for the winter, I’m hoping to finally (finally!) get back to my usual reading and writing pace! 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dmitriev’s Peasant & Teenager Win Russian Booker

Another week, another big Russian literary prize... Today the Russian Booker went to Andrei Dmitriev for Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), a book I wrote about last month, here.

I’ve only read half this year’s finalistsSlavnikova’s book, Stepnova’s book, and Dmitriev’s winner—but have to say this choice surprised and disappointed me, and not just because Dmitriev already won a Yasnaya Polyana award in October. The Peasant and the Teenager is a decent enough novel about city and rural life, and I can understand enjoying it. Still, as I wrote in my previous post, I think the book lacks something. That something is, at least for me, intangible and difficult to describe: the book doesn’t manage to give me much new, either thematically or aesthetically, leaving me moderately satisfied but shruggingly indifferent. Despite the cow, my favorite character.

I’ll leave the commentary at that for now and add notes later if I find any interesting reactions. Two days later, these three articles seem to sum up what I've read:

Addition 1: An article from RIANovosti with comments about the award. (NB: They got Stepnova's first name wrong at the top: she's Marina!) I'm posting this because I agree with writer and critic Alisa Ganieva's comment that Dmitriev's book was a safe choice; Ganieva said she would have chosen a winner from the Stepnova, Slavnikova, or Terekhov books. This article also includes a comment from Booker committee chair Igor Shaitanov expressing his pleasure with the choice because the Booker's goal is to try to make serious Russian literature competitive; another article, on Gazeta.ru, has Shaitanov hinting that Dmitriev's book was noted by the prize's English partners and may be translated into English.

Addition 2: A thorough piece from Izvestia by critic Liza Novikova, who (as always!) fits a lot into a brief article. Among other things, Liza calls Dmitriev's novel a continuation of the Soviet-era "village prose" tradition, noting that Dmitriev manages to create a positive character in Paniukov, a rarity in contemporary literature. I agree and think it's one of the book's best aspects. Liza also includes some interesting quotes from finalists Slavnikova and Terekhov, with Slavnikova discussing how her book might have been different if written now and Terekhov saying that if readers see his Germans as social satire, then it must be social satire.

Addition 3: Anna Narinskaia's piece for Kommersant. Among other things, Narinskaia mentions the Booker's apparent trend of moderation (after those scandalous (!) Elizarov and Koliadina wins...), 2012 jury chair Samuil Lur'e's comment that Russian literature died back around, uhm, 1949 sending readers to foreign detective novels, and (writer and jury member) Roman Senchin's response that, essentially, all is not lost. Phew.

Up Next: Moscow trip report with more about the Big Book award, then Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and Margarita Khemlin’s Investigator. Then who knows… the bookshelf is wonderfully, ridiculously full after this fall’s Moscow trips! 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

2012 Big Book Awards

The Big Book awards are scheduled for November 27, when I'll be in Moscow... and plan to go to the Big Book award ceremony. Since I'm traveling light, at least electronically speaking, I'm scheduling this piece to post automatically -- I'll tap in a comment, as Anonymous, late that day/night with the winners. I'll try to remember to take pictures to post later in my trip report!

For everyone's reference, here's the list of finalists:

  • Maria Galina: Медведки (Mole-Crickets)
  • Daniil Granin: Мой лейтенант… (My Lieutenant…)
  • Aleksandr Grigorenko: Мэбэт. История человека тайги(Mebet. The Story of a Person from the Taiga)
  • Vladimir Gubailovsky: Учитель цинизма (The Teacher of Cynicism)
  • Andrei Dmitriev: Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager)
  • Aleksandr Kabakov, Evgenii Popov: Аксёнов (Aksyonov)
  • Vladimir Makanin: Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky)
  • Sergei Nosov: Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier)
  • Valerii Popov: Плясать досмерти (To Dance to Death)
  • Zakhar Prilepin: Чёрная обезьяна (The Black Monkey)
  • Andrei Rubanov: Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats/Exploits)
  • Marina Stepnova: Женщины Лазаря (The Women of Lazarus/Lazarus’s Women)
  • Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov): «Несвятые святые» и другие рассказы (“Unsaintly Saints” and Other Stories)
  • Lena Eltang: Другие барабаны (Other Drums)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City

Reading Dmitrii Danilov’s latest book, Описание города (Description of a City) was a big, huge literary relief: after enjoying his spare but detailed Horizontal Position and “Black and Green” very much, I’d wondered what he would (or possibly could!) do next. My hope—selfish, of course—was that he would continue writing prose that is impersonal and I-less, but deeply personal... and, somehow, expand into another dimension. Which is exactly what Danilov does, in Description of a City, a book that is both very touching and quietly funny, a book that describes—and, really, defines—a city he visits once a month for a year. Beginning in January.

The narrator in Description of a City catalogues his goals on the first page. A summary: walk around, ride around, look around, stay in hotels, buy things, go from end to end many times, walk the central street and other streets a million times, make the place feel native so it gets under the skin. The city was chosen for its railroad connections and relatively short distance from Moscow (six hours by train), sports teams, wealth of industry, and dearth of tourist attractions. We learn that it’s essentially flyover country: the city’s airport doesn’t have many flights and the narrator sees planes flying overhead.

But my description of Description is off. Danilov uses terms like these, which I’ll translate very literally:
  • описаемый город –city being described
  • гостиница, название которой совпадает с названием одного из областных центров Украины – hotel the name of which coincides with the name of one of the regional centers of Ukraine
  • улица, названная в честь одного из месяцев – street named in honor of one of the months
  • площадь имени одного из величайших злодеев в мировой истории – [city] square named for one of the greatest villains in world history
Part of what makes this nomenclature work is that the place names start to pile up when the narrator goes from one train station to another, crosses a certain street, or sees a certain building. This sometimes creates absurdly long lists of names-that-don’t-name that might not seem to mean much. But they become names for us, Description’s readers, and they do have meaning—a lot of very marked meaning—even for a foreigner. I know, for example, the habit of naming hotels after other cities from the FSU, I know there are lots of Russian streets named after October, and I know Lenin and Marx are still pretty popular on Russian maps.

The cumulative effect of all those names-that-aren’t-names surprised me. Not only did I create a vivid mental picture of an imaginary city that drew on all my travel—in the years I lived in Russia I went to lots of small cities not unlike Danilov’s—but the city being described began to feel like a mythical, almost mystical place thanks to all the descriptions of names that draw on Soviet-era figures and clichés. Danilov has been called a new realist but his realism is a very particular and peculiar realism. His realism is abstract and almost transcendent, a realism with a lot of остранение, defamiliarization.

Danilov discusses words in other ways throughout the book, asking, for example, about the use of the word ритуальный (ritual) instead of похоронный (burial) when discussing funeral services. I’ve always thought this was strange, too. Also: can a wooden square that is obviously intended for use as a sandbox be called a “sandbox” if it contains no sand? And he wonders, throughout the book, about the expression “войти в печенки,” something the city being described should do to him, though he doesn’t quite grasp the expression. I don’t quite grasp the expression, either: literally it’s apparently “get into your livers” (!) and the Oxford Russian-English dictionary has the translation “to plague (someone)” for when something is, in Russian, in your livers. To me it feels a lot like “get under the skin.” In any case, at the very end of the book Danilov wraps things up nicely, saying there’s no longer any sense in talking about getting into livers. “Надо назвать вещи своими именами,” he says. Meaning his narrator is feeling compelled to call things by their true names so ‘fesses up: I don’t think it gives away anything at all to add that he says he has come to love that city… and of course the confession doubles as the narrator’s explanation of the livers expression.

So, yes, Description of a City got under my skin and into my livers, too, thanks to Danilov’s wonderful pile-ups of names that sometimes feel poetic, hours spent sitting on benches at train stations, on seats of buses, on seats at stadiums. The contrast of movement and transportation with open expanses and a meditative state I’ve come to expect from Danilov is also lovely. Most of all, though, I appreciate how Danilov uses language to deconstruct urban naming and describe a city that readers can build—one generic, clichéd name or building at a time—into imagined cities that draw on memories of real places and Soviet myths his readers already know. It’s quite a nice trick.

The train station known as
City Being Described-1. 
P.S. In case anyone wonders what city served as the model for the city being described, it’s Bryansk, something Danilov told me before I read the book, though I decided not to look at photos until finishing my reading. One reason Danilov chose Bryansk: his tremendous respect for Leonid Dobychin, a writer who lived in Bryansk. Of course Dobychin isn’t mentioned by name—he’s “выдающийся русский писатель” (an eminent Russian writer)—but Description of a City mentions monthly visits to the empty lot where Dobychin’s house once stood. It is, writes Danilov, on a street named in honor of one of the months, though the month is neither January or February. As I said, the book got into my livers.

Disclaimers: Danilov gave me a copy of Description of a City when I saw him in Moscow earlier this fall.

Up Next: Vorishilovgrad from Serhij Zhadan, which I swear I will finish writing about one/some day soon! Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator. And the Big Book award.



Sunday, November 11, 2012

City/Country: Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager

Andrei Dmitriev’s Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), which won the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” Yasnaya Polyana award last month and is also on the short lists for this year’s Big Book and Russian Booker prizes, is a novel composed of two intersecting character sketches. Dmitriev draws his two title characters in great detail: middle-aged Paniukov, an Afghan war veteran who lives in a Russian village, and teen aged Gera, a Muscovite who comes to stay with Paniukov to avoid military service. They are brought together by Vova, an old friend and former farming partner of Paniukov’s who now lives in Moscow.

Though I didn’t count pages or scenes, it felt to me that Dmitriev offered more backstory for the men—often about their not-so-happening relationships with women—than present-day interaction. In the beginning of the book, Paniukov still thinks about his youthful romance with Sanya, whom he sees around town, and Gera is madly in love with Tatiana, who’s in Moscow and difficult to reach by cell phone. There’s no cell signal in the village—this is my kind of place!—so he has to travel to call her. I didn’t find much of interest in either romantic plot line, both of which take up lots of pages, rehashing stories of love and loss that I’ve heard, read, and witnessed elsewhere. I didn’t find much of interest in the interactions between Paniukov and Gera, either; Dmitriev didn’t develop their differences as much as I’d expected.

Still, I never thought about abandoning the book. The Peasant and the Teenager is readable thanks to Dmitriev’s writing and his ability to create texture in the settings and secondary characters—including a cow—that surround Paniukov and Gera. The texture doesn’t always feel very new to me, either, but Dmitriev combines elements to create atmosphere, particularly in the village, that feels real, if only in a schematic way. He gives us villagers who speak only in the informal you (ты) to emphasize closeness, English-influenced slang and poor spelling, a contrast of urban and rural bathhouses, walks that don’t quite go into the woods, illegal wood cutting, and a group of hunters who stay with Paniukov and Gera. As the designated drinker of the pair (Paniukov is a teetotaler), Gera has vodka with the hunters, revealing himself a buzzkill by talking too much about Suvorov. Dmitriev also has Paniukov tell stories of unpleasant village fates: they begin to feel identical and dull to Gera, who’s been through a bit himself because his brother is a drug addict abandoned by his family.

I came away from The Peasant and the Teenager with mixed feelings. On the minus side, the novel felt a bit awkward—not quite finished (or connected?) and not quite the right length—and I prefer a book with more conflict between characters. Dmitriev raised expectations that he’d reveal more about Paniukov and Gera than their been-there-read-that love stories could show. On the positive side, all the details I described above made this medium-length book perfectly pleasant to read, particularly given supporting characters like Lika, who changes her hair color to stave off boredom, and Paniukov’s expressive cow. I give Dmitriev extra credit for the cow, who became my favorite character: it’s a rare book where I want to read more about a cow who’s at the center of everything in a place without a cell signal.

Disclosures: The usual. Dmitriev shares an agent with two writers I’ve translated.

Up Next: Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad and Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City

Sunday, November 4, 2012

NOSE Finalists, 2012-2013

The NOSE Award named its [somewhat curious] list of finalists last week… here they are listed in Russian alphabetical order: 

  • Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina: Маленький человек (A Little Man), “a social novel with a detective [novel] plot,” according to the publisher’s description on Ozon.ru. Update on November 17, 2012: This book was also shortlisted for the 2012 Debut Prize for long fiction.
  • Lora Beloivan: Карбид и амброзия (Carbide and Ambrosia), a short story collection.
  • Sergei Gandlevskii: Бездумное былое (something like Feckless Bygone Days, though I almost missed the д and made this into Insane Bygone Days, an easier title to deal with, really…), a memoir about everything from family history to political protest in 2011.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili: Захват Московии (The Capture of Muscovy), a novel that a couple friends have enjoyed, though one said it’s not nearly as good as The Devil’s Wheel… then again, Gigolashvili set ridiculously high standards for himself with The Devil’s Wheel and The Interpreter.
  • Georgii Davydov: Крысолов (The Rat Catcher), a novel that’s also on this year’s Booker short list.
  • Nikolai Kononov: Бог без машины. История 20 сумасшедших, сделавших в России бизнес с нуля (God Without a Machine [or, heaven forbid, God Without a Car?]. The History of 20 Crazy People Starting Businesses in Russia from Nothing), nonfiction where the second part of the title seems to explain a lot more than the first. At least to me.
  • Aleksei Motorov: Юные годы медбрата Паровозова (Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years), an autobiographical novel that Ozon readers have loved. This one sounds like very decent mainstream.
  • Oleg Rashidov: Сколково. Принуждение к чуду (Skolkovo. Necessity for a Miracle), another business-themed book, this one about the Skolkovo Innovation Centre.
  • Lev Rubinshtein: Знаки внимания (Signs of Attention), a collection of columns from various publications and various years.
There’s a lot of nonfiction in that list but, as of this writing, fiction leads the online voting: Male Nurse Parovozov is first with 559 votes, followed by The Rat Catcher with 408 and Carbide and Ambrosia with 273.

Up Next: Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, Andrei Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager, Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City… 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Trip Report! American Literary Translators Association Conference, Early October 2012, Rochester, NY

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, which looks ready to windily, rainily slither around us nearly all week (!), I’m so distracted today that I’m glad I wrote up my summary of the American Literary Translators Association conference a couple weeks ago. This was my second ALTA conference: ALTA has quickly become a favorite element in my fall calendar thanks to the ever-welcome combination of приятное с полезным/business with pleasure. Here are some highlights:

I started off ALTA 2012 with “Translation Challenges in Modern Russian Prose,” in which John Givens spoke of translating Vasily Shukshin with Laura (Michael) Givens and addressed the vexing question “Do Russian Peasants say ‘Ain’t’?” as he discussed “deformed Soviet speech,” something that seems to hold inordinate power over me, too. Will Evans then talked about potential uses of intertextuality and interactivity for/with/in his translation of Oleg Kashin’s Роисся вперде (Fardwor, Ruissa!) and Carol Apollonio looked at some particularly difficult passages and words in German Sadulaev’s Таблетка (The Mayan Pill), a book she said includes invented language and a demonic possession theme. The session highlighted one of my favorite aspects of ALTA: panelists’ candor about their projects and Difficult Moments in Translation.

The second time slot presented a scheduling dilemma: I choose the “Linguistics & the Culture of Humor” panel over “Translating Poetry: In & Out of Slavic Languages,” missing, alas, several colleagues, because I was so interested in hearing Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson speak about their work on Ilf and Petrov’s The Golden Calf: I interviewed them for the blog a few years ago. Gurevich did most of their speaking (Anderson had been sick), mentioning technical things like translating (or not) names and bits of verse in The Golden Calf, general things that make humor work—I couldn’t agree more that the element of surprise is key—and the Gurevich-Anderson team’s translation of Pavel Sanaev’s Похороните меня за плинтусом (Bury Me Behind the Baseboard), a book featuring an unbalanced grandmother. The other panelists were fun(ny), too... and you can read more about humor and ALTA in Jascha Hoffman's essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review.  

I took part in the bilingual reading program on the afternoon of Day One, reading the first several sections/languages in my translation of Vladislav Otroshenko’s Языки Нимродовой башни (“The Languages of Nimrod’s Tower”)—I’m grateful to the audience for their sense of humor! This was a Slavic languages bloc(k), so I’ll list all the other readers: Robin Davidson with poems by Ewa Lipska (Poland), Magdalena Mullek with prose by Lukás Luk (Slovakia), and Danuta Borchardt with poems by Cyprian Norwid (Polish). Marian Schwartz led off the session, reading the beginning of her translation of Mikhail Shishkin’s Венерин волос (Maidenhair), out this month from Open Letter Books, based at the University of Rochester. Chad Post, publisher at Open Letter, also interviewed Marian at the very end of the conference. Marian read chunks of the book again and spoke, among other things, about Maidenhair’s subtexts (e.g. Agatha Christie) and Shishkin’s help—provided in the form of extensive notes and a full review—in translating this wonderfully, crazily complex book. I just have to say: Shishkin is truly a force of nature! I missed a bit of Marian’s talk to run across the hall and hear Jamie Olson read his very enjoyable translations of poetry by Timur Kibirov in the bilingual reading program.

¡Declamación!—the reading and/or singing of memorized verse—is another ALTA highlight. I recited a poem from Konstantin Vaginov’s Bambocciade, in the original and in my translation. I’m only an accidental poetry translator but have to admit it can be ridiculously fun to piece together something with rhythm and rhyme. And I’ll say this again: memorizing a poem to recite is a very useful exercise. Now I can recite poems in Russian when people ask, as happens more often than you might think, to hear some Russian. Other Russian declaimers: Marian recited a beautiful passage from Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Нездешний вечер” (“An Otherworldly Evening”) and Sibelan Forrester sang a baleful wedding song. Sibelan’s translation of Vladimir Propp’s The Russian Folktale came out in September.

Getting beyond Russian themes, highlights included: A fun panel moderated by Jamie Olson on work habits, in which translators talked about getting up painfully early to translate, working in public places using documents stored in the cloud, carrying around lines of poetry to translate, dread and deadlines, and “bulldozing” up a first draft. Some translators tell me they use far more electronic resources than old-fashioned reference books printed on paper so I felt less like a Luddite when Bill Johnston said he uses no online dictionaries and Russell Valentino mentioned having lots of books open at the same time. I make frequent use of online dictionaries and Google Images but find the paper stuff so useful in a mysterious way—zoning out while gazing at definitions and synonyms on paper is a strangely fruitful act for me—that I’ve been thinking about how to add another surface around my desk so I can have more room for (open) books… In a marketing panel, Matvei Yankelevich mentioned that The Overlook Press has reprinted his collection of Daniel Kharms stories, Today I Wrote Nothing, in an Ardis edition… A session on music and musicality in translation focused mostly on poetry, and it was a treat to hear Carolyn Tipton, Stephen Kessler, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Roger Greenwald talk about and read from their work… Finally, I loved panels on authorisms and stylistics: I seem to be drawn to fussing over quirks rooted in Russian’s structure and/or writers’ neologisms and linguistic tics, particularly the afore-mentioned “deformed Soviet speech,” so enjoyed hearing about reader tolerance levels (Russell Valentino), dialogue tags (Elizabeth Harris), removing “it” when “it” is a “dummy subject” (Bill Johnston), and translating Heinrich von Kleist (Christiane Eydt-Beebe).

For more: 

  • The program for the conference is online, in PDF format, here
  • Jamie Olson blogged about ALTA on The Flaxen Wave here
  • Susan Bernofsky has posts about ALTA on Translationista here and here; the second post was written by translator Bill Martin. 
  • I’ll add more links later, when they’re available: Open Letter recorded many sessions that will be posted online.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, Andrei Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager, and then more 2012 Big Book finalists.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Marina Stepnova’s Lazar Lindt and All His Women

Marina Stepnova’s Женщины Лазаря (Lazar’s Women) is one of “those” books: in this case, “those” books are the ones that compel me just a touch more than they repel me. Oddly, for this reader, “those” books have a tendency to be novels where form and content are absolutely inseparable (a big plus) and books that inexplicably leave me with painfully unforgettable scenes and atmospheres (an even bigger plus).

Moving on to the specifics…

Lazar’s Women, which is billed as a family saga, begins in the early twentieth century and continues to the present. And, yes, it truly is a family saga: each of the women—Marusya, Galina Petrovna, and Lidochka—that the title encompasses occupies, with some overlap, a specific historical period, and each (sort of) has her own place in the life of one Lazar Lindt. In my reading, Lindt is almost an incidental character, first feeling unrequited love for Marusya (his mentor’s wife) because of her welcoming home, then marrying the all-too-young Galina Petrovna and cosseting her in Soviet-era ways, and finally serving as a mythical figure in the life of his granddaughter, Lidochka, whose mother drowns in the book’s first chapter, leaving her to be raised by Galina Petrovna, now a rather cold widow.

The plot summary sounds pretty typical and trite, even (or particularly?) when you add in Lazar’s role as a mathematician who works on a bomb—Lazar is a creator and a destroyer all rolled into one, living in a remote scientist city with the mathematical-sounding name Ensk—so it’s Stepnova’s treatment of her material that gives the book its interest. I read the first hundred or so pages of Lazar’s Women thinking (as I still do) the novel is overwritten, overloaded, and overwrought… but then I grasped the book’s logic and began reading it as an allegorical, abstract representation of history, love, nonlove, and the effects of Soviet life on the psyche that demands all Stepnova’s literary “stuff.”

In her review for Izvestia, Liza Novikova likened Lazar’s Women to books by Liudmila Ulitskaya and Dina Rubina—and I completely agree with Novikova, who cites themes and devices that Stepnova handles differently, almost rebuking her schoolmarmish elders—but I found myself thinking even more of Vasily Aksyonov’s trilogy that’s known as Generations of Winter in English and Московская сага (Moscow Saga) in Russian. I disliked, almost intensely, the trilogy but couldn’t put it down. And I still can’t forget Aksyonov’s portrayals of the Soviet era’s perversion of life and love. Lazar’s Women had a similar effect on me, partly because it also dissects various types of perversion, but I think Stepnova’s book is better composed—compiled might be an even better word—than Aksyonov’s. For one thing, Stepnova uses her magpie techniques to offer all manner of tchotchkes, emotions, and accessories but Aksyonov uses his in what I consider a cheaper way, stuffing in cameo roles for historical figures, including Stalin. Stepnova’s book is also far more affecting in its affectedness: the book is even something of a tearjerker in spots. I fogged up more than once, and one male reader told me he cried.

I think critic Viktor Toporov’s description of Lazar’s Women as высокое чтиво is perfect: my English-language version of that would be “high-class pulp” because I read Lazar’s Women as a piece of very readable postmodernism that offers traditional alongside trashy. Stepnova combines elements and specifics like high class Soviet-era privileges, low-class words related to the body, a bathroom scene involving a smoking ballerina, the flexible saga genre, and a first-person narrator with an identity and a very distinctive voice but only (apparently) a cryptically tangential presence to the actual story.

Early in the book, though, that narrator tells doubting readers to check Yandex, a Russian search engine, if s/he doesn’t believe the facts in one part of the novel. Zakhar Prilepin criticizes the mention of Yandex in his review (which I read in Prilepin’s Книгочет), but I think he’s reading too literally and missing the point. Prilepin says (in my translation), “People write books about what Yandex doesn’t know and will never know,” adding that it doesn’t matter if we believe (my italics) what’s in a book or not. Okay, sure, fiction addresses mysteries of life that a search engine’s algorithms can’t grasp. I found the Yandex advice a bit puzzling at first but the further I read Lazar’s Women, the more I read the mention of Yandex as a a mysterious narrator’s reminder of the hierarchies and interdependencies of fact and fiction… that isn’t so far off from the novel’s portrayals of hierarchies within Soviet and post-Soviet society, which Stepnova inserts into a work of fiction that manages to feel simultaneously historical and anti-historical.

So, yes, Lazar’s Women irritated the hell out of me with its diminutives, barfing, and ballet. And, no, it’s not a gentle or genteel family saga. But that’s probably why the book works so well, why it feels a little unusual and important, and why it’s been shortlisted for this year’s NatsBest, Yasnaya Polyana, Big Book, and Russian Booker awards. It didn’t win the first two, and I haven’t read all the Big Book and Booker finalists, but Lazar’s Women is a very good book, a book I can’t help but respect—IMHO, respect > liking, when it comes to books—so I’d be more than happy if Stepnova won either award.

Up Next: Trip report from the American Literary Translators Association conference, Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and Andrei Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager, which I’m enjoying very much, though it’s a bit of a shock to the system after the historical abstraction and brutal dreaminess of, respectively, Lazar and Voroshilovgrad.

Disclaimers: The usual.



Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Five Years of the Bookshelf

One of these years I'll bake
some myself.
It’s time for the cupcake again! It was five years ago today that I first posted to Lizok’s Bookshelf. The last five years have felt like about two, maybe three, years, particularly given how much I’ve enjoyed meeting—in real life and over e-mail—so many new friends and colleagues through the blog. It’s very gratifying (and even more humbling) to go to conferences and book fairs, and have people ask, “Are you Lizok?” A huge thanks to all of you for visiting, reading, and getting in touch.

Something feels a little different each year when I write these posts, and this year the biggest change is that contemporary Russian literature has become an even larger part of my work and life. I’m still writing a bit for the Read Russia site in these post-BookExpo America months, plus lately I’ve been working more on literary translation, which I love. I’m very curious—almost agonizingly curious!—to see what the next year brings.

Here are a few annual report statistics… It’s always fun sifting through Google data to see what brings people here.

Geography. The top five visitor countries haven’t changed: United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, and Italy. Among those countries, Italians spend the most time (average of 2:28), and Canadians are the fastest (1:14) readers. Top cities are New York, London, and Moscow; the cities seem to fluctuate, but Londoners still take more time than New Yorkers (minutes are so damn short in New York!) and Muscovites. One surprise: Lilburn, Georgia, was in fourth place though its speed reader(s) only spend(s) a bot-like average of six seconds (six seconds!) per visit.

Popular Posts. The most popular post, again this year, was Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature, which froze out “The Overcoat” for the second year running. “Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers” was next, followed by Pushkin’s Belkin Tales and Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time. I do, of course, find a certain irony in the fact that my primary interest is contemporary fiction but more readers come here to read about classics. I keep amassing nineteenth- and twentieth-century classics… and I love reading them, truly I do, but I rarely seem to get around to as many as I’d like because I love the discovery element of contemporary fiction even more. Then again, winter’s on the way…

Common and Odd Search Terms. “Lizok’s bookshelf” is now the most common search phrase, and I observe lots of combinations of book titles or author names together with “Lizok.” I was extremely surprised to find the string of shubert in kiev leonid girshovich as the second most popular search term… I didn’t even finish the book! After those terms came: Russian literature reading list, The Golden Calf online, Compromise Dovlatov review, Drawings from the Gulag, Lizok “Twelve Chairs,” index:of Russian novelists, and The Foundation Pit summary. I’m happy to know so many people are seeking out Ilf, Petrov, Platonov, and Dovlatov.

I haven’t noticed a lot of strange search terms lately, though I just saw that someone asked again whether it’s safe for pregnant women to eat gefilte fish. I still can’t/won’t answer that question. That query draws visitors thanks to my post on Dina Kalinovskaia’s wonderful novella Oh, Shabbat!… which reminds me I still want to try making my own gefilte fish, especially after seeing Lake Ontario when I was in Rochester, New York, recently and learning Lake Ontario harbors carp. Back to searches: I also sometimes see strange series of words and numbers that make it look like people are trying to contact someone (e.g. Dostoevsky) beyond the grave, perhaps through some strange combination of phone and e-mail. Please, people, don’t even try! And then there are sausage-related searches: sausage fun, sausage links drawings, and sausage people. I have no idea what any of that means but here are posts mentioning sausage. Some searches, like those seeking specific translators, make me happy, though: Amanda Love Darragh is particularly popular, and Marian Schwartz and Andrew Bromfield pop up pretty regularly, too.

On that cheery note, I’ll sign off until next weekend… and thank you again for visiting. I hope to meet even more of you, virtually or in real life, soon!

Up Next: Marina Stepnova’s Lazar’s Women, Zaven Babloyan’s Russian translation of Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and a trip report on the recent American Literary Translators Association conference.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

2012 Yasnaya Polyana Winners

The Yasnaya Polyana Award announced 2012 winners today: Evgenii Kasimov won the “XXI Century” award for his story collection Назовите меня Христофором (Call Me Christopher) and Andrei Dmitriev received the first-ever “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” award for Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), a book that’s also on the Booker and Big Book short lists. Valentin Rasputin won the “Contemporary Classic” award. I listed Yasnaya Polyana finalists in this previous post.


The other Rasputin:
Valentin
I still know close to nothing about Kasimov and his book, though I’ve already seen bits of (the inevitable!) grumbling about his win. (Kasimov is in politics.) Edit on October 11: The plot thickens... Lenta.ru reports that Iurii Buida claimed, in a Facebook post, that he would have won the prize for Blue Blood (previous post) had he been able to attend the award ceremony; Lenta also reported that Vladimir Tolstoy, the jury chair, claims Buida never got any official notification from the jury.

I’ve heard mixed reactions to Dmitriev’s book—inevitable, too, of course, for a book on so many short lists—which I’m looking forward to starting soon. Finally, I’ve read very, very little of Rasputin’s writing, though I’ve had one or two of his books on my shelves for years. Several English-language translations are available, including Farewell to Matyora and Live and Remember, both translated by Antonina W. Bouis, and Siberia, Siberia and Siberia on Fire, translated by Gerald Mikkelson and Margaret Winchell.

Disclaimers: The usual, plus I translated a story by Vladislav Otroshenko, a Yasnaya Polyana jury member.

Up next: Literary translator conference trip report (lots of Russian notes!), Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us) and all his women, Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and much more.

Image credit: Valentin Rasputin, creative commons, via Wikipedia

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Russian Booker 2012 Short List

The 2012 Russian Booker finalists were announced today. Six books made the list:

  • Marina Akhmedova: Дневник смертницы. Хадижа (Khadija, Notes of a Death Girl)
  • Andrei Dmitriev: Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager)
  • Evgenii Popov: Арбайт, или Широкое полотно (Arbeit, Or A Wide Canvas)
  • Olga Slavnikova: Легкая голова (Light Head)—previous post
  • Marina Stepnova: Женщины Лазаря (Lazar(us)’s Women)
  • Aleksandr Terekhov: Немцы ([The?] Germans)
I’ll write soon about the Stepnova book and plan to read Dmitriev’s novel next. I’m in Rochester, NY, for a few days for the American Literary Translators Association conference.

Up next: Yasnaya Polyana winners, maybe an ALTA trip report, Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us) and all his women, Andrei Rubanov’s short stories, and Zaven Babloyan’s Ukrainian-to-Russian translation of Serhij Zhadan’s strange Voroshilovgrad journey, which has me reading The Wizard of Oz… 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ergali Ger’s Koma & the Long NOSE List

Two items this week: quick thoughts on Ergali Ger’s novella Koma (Coma) and then an abridged version of the NOSE award’s 2012 long list…


First, Koma/Coma: I think it’s safe to say that Koma falls into the category of чернуха (chernukha), that wrenchingly crushing naturalism I’ve mentioned so many times before: Ger tells the story of Komera (“Koma”) Protasova, a retired woman who loses everything when she joins a church. Like most of the other chernukha I’ve read, Koma feels painfully—for both better and worse—obvious because the reader senses impending doom. From Koma’s name, with its references to communism and mental incapacity, to the mysterious Teacher of Koma’s church who asks members to hand over their apartments so they can all eventually live in a church-built complex, it was clear Koma’s retirement years would be anything but utopian, communitarian, or golden.

Yes, Koma is obvious but it is quality chernukha—it was a finalist for the 2009 Belkin award and the title work of a collection shortlisted for the 2011 Yasnaya Polyana award—and Ger tells his story logically, building suspense as he shows how Koma’s life implodes. He also works in historical details like the default of summer 1998; no comfort there. Koma reminded me of Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs, another chernukha piece that builds methodically, almost ploddingly, as it chronicles a family’s downfall. Though Koma is well-composed and suspenseful in its hair-pulling chernukha way (“What other tragedy could possibly befall these people?”), I certainly see why some (okay, even many) readers wouldn’t want to relive the darker sides of ‘90s memories via fiction about religious and housing crises. I thought Koma was absorbing but it didn’t show me much I didn’t already know... plus the experience of reading the book felt a little too reminiscent of watching a predictable haunted house movie (not a favorite genre) where the viewer wants to shout, “Don’t open that door!”

The Mikhail Prokhorov Fund’s NOSE Award Long List is the fun part this week: This grab bag of a long list contains 27 books—fiction, poetry, and nonfiction—so I won’t name them all, though I’ll mention the several I’ve read plus the books that are on my shelves. Then I’ll list all (I hope!) the other fiction…

First, the ones I’ve read, at least in part: I read and thoroughly enjoyed Alexander Ilichevsky’s Анархисты (The Anarchists) (previous post) but couldn’t wend my way through Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise Or the Way to the Glacier), a book that’s already been shortlisted for the NatsBest and Big Book and longlisted for the Booker; alas, Nosov just couldn’t make a guy chatting with his herniated disc work for me. Books already on the shelves are: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Захват Московии (The Capture of Muscovy), which a couple friends have enjoyed; Dmitrii Danilov’s Описание города (Description of a City), which I’m looking forward to; and Alexander Terekhov’s Немцы ([The?] Germans), which already won this year’s NatsBest. Three other familiar titles: Eduard Limonov’s В Сырах (In Syry) and Georgii Davydov’s Крысолов (The Rat Catcher) were both longlisted for the 2012 Russian Booker, and Vladimir Lidskii’s Русский садизм (Russian Sadism) was on the 2012 NatsBest short list.

The NOSE list contains a fair bit of nonfiction—based on quick glances, it looks like one book’s about Pelevin, another is about Russian business, plus there are essays and poems from writers like Gleb Shulpyakov, Sasha Sokolov, German Sadulaev, and Lev Rubinshtein…—but there are a few more novels. We have: Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina’s Маленький человек (A Small Man), Alla Bossart’s Холера (Cholera), Veronika Kungurtseva’s Орина дома и в Потусторонье (Orina at Home and On the Other Side), Iurii Mamleev’s После конца (After the End), Dima Klein’s Двойник Президента (The President’s Double), and Aleksei Motorov’s Юные годы медбрата Паровозова (Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years), an autobiographical novel I noticed several times in Moscow. It seems to have quite a following. The NOSE list also includes Lora Beloivan’s story collection, Карбид и амброзия (Carbide and Ambrosia).

Up next: Booker Prize short list, Yasnaya Polyana winners, Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us) and all his women, Andrei Rubanov’s short stories, and Zaven Babloyan’s Ukrainian-to-Russian translation of Serhij Zhadan’s peculiar Voroshilovgrad, a book I don’t want to read too quickly… in Zaven’s translation, Voroshilovgrad contains peculiarly lovely imagery and a gauzy blend of sur- and reality.

Disclosures: The usual; I know several individuals mentioned in this post. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Moscow Trip Report: Translator Congress, Book Fair, Book Shopping

In early September I spent a short week in Moscow thanks to the Institute of Translation, which invited me to the second International Congress of Literary Translators, where I spoke and served as co-moderator, with Natasha Perova of Glas, during sections categorized as “Translation of Contemporary Literature.”  I went to Moscow a few days early so I could work down my jetlag before the Congress (mixed results), go to the Moscow International Book Fair (success), and visit friends, colleagues, and favorite sites (success). A few jumbled highlights:


The Congress. I called my conference paper “Оптимистический взгляд с другого берега: Что такое «хорошо» в современной русской литературе (“An Optimistic View from the Other Shore: Contemporary Russian Literature & The Meaning of “Good”) and spent my 10 minutes speaking first (very fast!) about the unique internal logic I think governs good works of fiction. Internal logic is my take on Jonathan Lethem’s thought that a writer should teach the reader to read his/her book. Then I mentioned three favorite books—Khemlin’s Klotsvog, Senchin’s Yeltyshevs, and Gigolashvili’s Devil’s Wheel—that I think work particularly well. A sequel on internal logic appears below…

As for Congress highlights, I particularly enjoyed a plenary session talk from Natalya Ivanova, first deputy head editor of the thick journal Znamia. Ivanova named names in a talk about contemporary fiction, quoting contemporary writers who find fault in today’s literature, then saying there’s plenty worthy of translation, then offering her own examples of good writers (e.g. Mikhail Shishkin, Fazil Iskander, Liudmila Petrushevsksya, Vladimir Makanin, and Alexander Kabakov) plus two nonfavorites she sees as nostalgic for the Soviet past: Mikhail Elizarov, whom she accused of writing poorly, and Zakhar Prilepin, whom she considers a better writer, prolific, and unusual. Ivanova also listed recent books about problems in contemporary life written by Olga Slavnikova, Alexander Ilichevsky, Iurii Buida, Dmitrii Danilov, Vladimir Gubailovskii, and Maria Galina, among others.

Other Congress highlights: Michele Berdy’s talk about language, including current uses of words like вообще (a.k.a. “вооще!”) and актуальный, and the fact that Russian plates “stand” on a table… hearing numerous talks (and even a slight related outburst) mentioning who gets translated into various languages: I made a list of popular names in the sessions I attended, noting the prolific Prilepin as well as Akunin, Marinina, Shishkin, Sorokin, Erofeev, and classics like Bulgakov… meeting people like Zaven Babloyan, who translates from Ukrainian to Russian and gave me a copy of his translation of Sergei Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad; and Kristina Rotkirch, who translates Russian into Swedish and interviewed writers for the useful Contemporary Russian Fiction, published by Glas… and, of course, getting caught up with literary agents and translators I’d met before. It’s always nice to see familiar people when you’re tired after travel! The only downside of such a big event is that I wasn’t able to hear nearly as many papers as I wanted. Here’s a PDF of the Congress program. Just ask if you have questions.

Vladislav Otroshenko and That Internal Logic. I visited with writer Vladislav Otroshenko on my first full day in Moscow; I translated his short story “Языки Нимродовой башни” (“The Languages of Nimrod’s Tower”). We talked about all sorts of things, from Cossacks and Vikings to the story and my Congress paper, focusing a fair bit on my “internal logic” idea, something he feels, from a different angle, as a writer. I must have been a little more lucid that day than I thought because he ended up writing a piece for Russian Pioneer about what he calls the “Lisa Hayden Moment.” In short, this is a point within a story or novel when a reader realizes the piece does or doesn’t work. His essay extends, very logically, what I told him: I rely a lot on instinct and intuition, which are inherently difficult to describe, so it was wonderful to see his summary.

The Moscow International Book Fair. I spent an afternoon at the book fair—it’s held in a pavilion at what used to be VDNKh, the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, what a strange feeling to go there again!—where I heard Margarita Khemlin speak about her new book, Дознаватель (The Investigator), which I’m looking forward to reading. I was pleased to see other writers, editors, and book people I’ve met in my travels, too, particularly Irina Bogatyreva, who has a story in a new collection compiled by that prolific Zakhar Prilepin. The AST and Eksmo booths both bustled with novelist talks, panels, and book signings but I was even more struck with all the publishers focused on specialized books; railroad sticks in my mind for personal reasons.

What I brought back. I started with
Voroshilovgrad and will soon work through the
pile of 2012 Big Book finalists on the right.
Book Shopping. Of course I brought back lots of books: some were given to me by writers and translators, but I purchased most of my books at Falanster, Biblio-Globus, and Moskva. I even bought one—Prilepin’s Книгочёт, a book about books and even, in one essay, drinking—at Domodedovo airport because I thought (correctly!) the short pieces would make good plane reading. Each store was fun in its own way… Falanster’s relatively random selection is great: the Vita Sovietica sort-of-a-dictionary is useful fun, and I snapped up German Sadulaev’s difficult-to-find Raid on Shali; I wish I’d thought to go back for some thick journals though I’m not sure I could have hauled much more home. I especially enjoyed Biblio-Globus because I went there with Dmitrii Danilov, who recommended several books, including Mikhail Butov’s Freedom; he also gave me his new Description of a City. Even Moskva, which I’ve always found convenient but a bit too dark and crowded, was fun because the cashier mentioned liking Valerii Popov’s Big Book finalist To Dance to Death, prompting another customer to notice my large stack of books and ask for recommendations because she thought I looked young enough to suggest books for her 30-something daughter who lives in Germany. I was flattered she thought I was young enough for the task: perhaps I was feeling especially youthful because, earlier that afternoon, the ticket seller at the Tretyakov Gallery asked if I needed an adult ticket (!!!); I told the truth about my age but was happy she sold me a Russian citizen ticket without asking my provenance. Anyway, I was more than pleased to suggest books on the Moskva shelves. Of course the poor woman didn’t know what hit her, particularly since I’m not even Russian: she seemed a little overwhelmed with the choices and I’m not sure she was familiar with chernukha. I showed her the laminated list of 2012 Big Book finalists that was hanging on the wall… and hope she picked up a finalist or two—maybe Popov’s book, Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets, or Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us)’s Women—after I left with my two heavy bags of books.

Disclaimers: The usual and more: many of the people I mention in this post are colleagues with whom I am on friendly terms, as are certain individuals (including editors and literary agents) who work with/at entities or people that I mention. A few organizations and individuals, particularly the Institute, fed me much-needed snacks, meals, caffeine, and/or a glass or two of wine, and helped me in various financial and nonfinancial ways, with my travel.

Up Next: Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us)’s Women, Ergali Ger’s Koma, the Russian Booker shortlist…

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Oodles of Award News: Yasnaya Polyana, Read Russia Translations, Book of the Year

Last week the Yasnaya Polyana Award named finalists for 2012 prizes. The finalists are:


For the “XXI Century” award, which RIA-Novosti called the “adult” award:
  • Iurii Buida’s Синяя Кровь (Blue Blood), which I read and enjoyed very much; it was third-prize winner among 2011’s Big Book “regular” reader voters.
  • Evgenii Kasimov’s Назовите меня Христофором (Call Me Christopher), which I’d never heard of. (This is what I like so much about award lists…)
  • Oleg Pavlov’s Дневник больничного охранника (Diary of a Hospital Guard), which has been on my reader since Pavlov sent me the text ages ago… it looks promising.
  • Iurii Petkevich’s С птицей на голове (With a Bird on the Head), another new (and intriguing) title for me.
  • Marina Stepnova’s Женщины Лазаря (Lazarus’s Women) a 2012 Big Book finalist I’m reading now.
  • Andrei Stoliarov’s Мы, народ (We, the People), another book I’d never heard of.

For the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” award, a new category this year, the finalists are:
  • Marina Aromshtam’s Когда отдыхают ангелы (When (the?) Angels Rest), which I’d heard of through a friend who knows Aromshtam.
  • Andrei Dmitriev’s Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), a 2012 Big Book finalist that I just brought back from Moscow.
  • Andrei Zhvalevskii and Evgenii Pasternak’s Время всегда хорошее (The Time Is Always Good), another mysterious title for me.

The Yasnaya Polyana jury will also choose a “contemporary classic” writer who will receive a prize of 900,000 rubles. The XXI Century and Childhood, Adolescence, Youth prizes carry monetary awards of, respectively, 750,000 and 300,000 rubles.

I was in Moscow earlier this month for a literary translator congress that concluded with a ceremony at which four translators were honored with Read Russia translation awards. The winners are:
  • Víctor Gallego Ballesteros for his Spanish translation of Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (19th century classical literature)
  • John Elsworth for his English translation of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (20th century works written before 1990). Elsworth also won the Rossica prize for Petersburg in May 2012.
  • Hélène Henri-Safier for her French translation of Dmitrii Bykov’s Pasternak (contemporary works written after 1990)
  • Alessandro Niero for his Italian translation of Dmitrii Prigov’s Thirty Three Texts  (poetry)

Russia Beyond the Headlines has more here. Event photos (including one with a tired-looking me!) available here. There’s even video here, where you can hear the fanfare.

In other award news, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)’s «Несвятые святые» и другие рассказы (“Unsaintly Saints” and Other Stories) was named prose of the year at the annual Book of the Year ceremony; this book is also on the 2012 Big Book short list. Boris Ryzhii won the poetry of the year award for his В кварталах дальних и печальных…: Избранная лирика. Роттердамский дневник, which I’ll just call a collection of lyrical poetry that must be related to Rotterdam. A special award went to Daniil Granin for his contributions to literature; Granin’s Мой лейтенант (My Lieutenant) is a 2012 Big Book finalist. I brought this one back from Moscow as well: a fellow book shopper was eager to read it after a friend’s recommendation.

Up Next: Moscow trip report covering the translator conference, the Moscow International Book Fair, and other odds and ends. Then, finally, books! Ergali Ger’s Koma, the Stepnova book, Andrei Rubanov’s short stories, and who knows what else.

Disclaimers: I wrote this with my customary post-travel cold so fear for my ability to successfully fact check my own writing. And then the usual. I write for Read Russia. Also, I met last week with Vladislav Otroshenko, a Yasnaya Polyana Award jury member; I translated Otroshenko’s story Языки Нимродовой башни (“The Languages of Nimrod’s Tower”) and can’t wait to read an excerpt of it at the American Literary Translators Association conference in few weeks. I’ll write more about my meeting with Otroshenko in my trip report.