Monday, May 28, 2012

Potpourri: Astvatsaturov and Shargunov, Rossica Awards

Back at last: it’s been quite a month of May! This week I have quick—and rather awkward, since their genres aren’t my usual reading—summaries of books by two writers who will be in New York soon for Read Russia and BookExpo America events, plus aging news on two awards, plus a bit about upcoming posts…

First the books... Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Люди в голом (People in the Nude), labelled a novel, is a book of what I’d call vignettes—some feel especially essayistic and/or autobiographical—that Astvatsaturov links with the motif of nudity, psychological and physical. I only read Part One, which I loved for its humorously biting accounts of childhood and its absurdities. Little Andrei Astvatsaturov, for example, isn’t allowed to use a local swimming pool because he talks with a friend, though the pool lady tells his mother it’s because he’s not strong and athletic enough. The friend who lent me People in the Nude especially liked a passage where Andrei and another friend communicate, wordlessly, during a field trip to a Lenin museum: the friend moves his shoulder and mouths “хрусть, хрусть” (“crack, crack”), referencing their interest in skeletons, which arose out of some poetry, drawing, and the idea of skeletons climbing the stairs to Lenin… trust us, it’s funnier and more wonderful than I can make it sound here. (I Googled because I was curious to see if anyone else liked that passage: it’s quoted here in Власть.)

Economical communication is Astvatsaturov’s strength as a writer, too: his portrayals of being a kid—playing at home alone, say, and taking a phone message—are brief but feel richly (arche)typical, with a combination of could-be-anywhere themes plus details, like involving imported beer cans in play, that feel distinctly Soviet-era. I gave the home alone dialogue to my first-year Russian students: the language was simple enough that they could read and enjoy some real Russian. (Bonus: They loved the book’s cover!) I’ll read Part Two later, if I can renew my book loan… it feels different from childhood, beginning with reflections on writing then moving on to a scene where a literary “dama,” smoking a cigarette, tells Andrei, “У вас не проза, Аствацатуров... а огрызки из отрывок” (literally “You don’t have prose, Astvatsaturov… but bits of excerpts.”) True enough, but his blend of invention and apparent autobiography were funny enough that I laughed out loud. Many times.

Reading Sergei Shargunov’s Книга без фотографий (A Book Without Photographs) immediately after People in the Nude certainly emphasized stylistic differences: where Astvatsaturov’s leisurely descriptions blend real life and invention, Shargunov composes a terser, more straightforward memoir that methodically barrels through episodes in his life, linking them through photographs and photography. Shargunov also covers childhood and young adulthood, beginning as the child of a priest and not joining the Pioneers, then winning the Debut Prize, becoming a political activist, and visiting political hot spots, including Chechnya, as a journalist. I thought the quick pace suited the material well, given Shargunov’s writings about politics, including the October 1993 Events, his attempt at elected office, and mentions of where he’s not allowed to photograph. A Book Without Photographs reads easily, as a perceptive personal history of the late Soviet and early post-Soviet eras. I enjoyed Shargunov’s combination of toughness and honesty, which—again!—contrasts with Astvatsaturov, whose book also feels very honest, though People in the Nude has more of a feel of irony and vulnerability than toughness.

Rossica Awards. Better late than never on this information! Academia Rossica announced last week that John Elsworth won the 2012 Rossica Translation Prize for his translation of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, and Gregory Afinogenov won the Rossica Young Translators Award for his translation of excerpts of Viktor Pelevin’s S.N.U.F.F. Congratulations to both.

What’s Coming Next: A guest post from Olga Bukhina about books for children and teenagers written by writers who usually write for adults. Her post is especially topical since two of the writers she chose—Dmitry Bykov and Boris Minaev—will be in New York next week. Award information: the Big Book short list is coming very soon, and the National Bestseller winner will be announced on June 3. Then Zakhar Prilepin’s Black Monkey. I’ll be in New York for a week, attending Read Russia events and BookExpo America… let me know if you’ll be there, too!

Disclaimers: The usual. And I am working on Read Russia.


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