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! 


  1. You are not alone in your expectations of what an invited guest is expected to do for their supper!

    I was very lucky to be involved with a Book Fair in the Middle East and given carte blanche to invite guests through Social Media. Nearly every one was anticipating a schedule of activity, which I did not provide, as I saw the opportunity was to project not often seen views of Arabia.

    I found the freedom to come and go, write whatever they thought, and to see whatever they wanted was a far better way of projecting the event, as opposed to the old-style broadcasting.

    Why more events do not adopt such informality and trust of their guests is beyond me.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rupert! I'm glad your event went well, too... maybe people involved with books, translating, publishing, and the like do well in informal atmospheres, particularly when there are book fairs to visit!