Sunday, April 29, 2012

More Award News: Russian Prize Winners & Big Book Long List

Another spring month, another post about awards… this time it’s winners of the Russian Prize plus the long long list for the Big Book Award.

The Russian Prize is awarded to writers who write in Russian but live outside Russia. Yuz Aleshkovsky won in the long fiction category for his Маленький тюремный роман (A Little Prison Novel). It’s been on the shelf waiting for me for a few months… which isn’t so long, considering I’ve been meaning to read Aleshkovsky for years. The other long fiction winners were Darya Vilke for Межсезонье (Off Season) and Lena Eltang for Другие барабаны (Other Drums).

The short fiction winner was Dmitry Vachedin for the short story collection Пыль (Dust), with second prize going to Maria Rybakova for the novel in verse Гнедич (Gnedich), and third to Evgenii Abdullaev for the novella Год барана (Year of the Sheep). The top poetry award went to Ilya Rissenberg for Третий из двух (The Third of Two), followed by Alexei Tsvetkov for Детектор смысла (Sense Detector) and Feliks Chechik for Из жизни фауны и флоры (From the Life of Fauna and Flora).

Now for the Big Book long list. And all these awards programs really do put the “long” in the long list: Big Book claims this year’s list contains 46 books, three of which are manuscripts listed without author names. I’ll just trust their count. And I won’t list everybody. A few names that popped out:

Lena Eltang’s Other Drums is on the list as are two books that recently made the 2012 NatsBest short list: Marina Stepnova’s Женщцны Лазаря (excerpt) (The Women of Lazarus) and Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier); Figgle-Miggle’s Ты так любишь эти фильмы (You Love Those Films So Much) was on last year’s NatsBest short list. Nikolai Kononov’s Фланёр (The Flâneur) and Nikolai Baitov’s Думай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak) were both shortlisted for the 2012 NOSE award.

I’ve only read one book on the list: Roman Senchin’s Information, which I wrote about here. I’ve also read bits of Oleg Pavlov’s Дневник больничного охранника (Diary of a Hospital Guard), which felt a little too intense to read in the PDF Pavlov sent to me.

There are several books by authors whose previous books I’ve particularly enjoyed: Vladimir Makanin’s Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky), Zakhar Prilepin’s Черная обезьяна (The Black Monkey), and Vsevolod Benigsen’s ВИТЧ (VITCh). A few more: Alexander Ilichevsky’s Анархисты ( [The?] Anarchists), Elena Chizhova’s Терракотовая старуха (The Terracotta Old Lady), and Sergei Samsonov’s Проводник электричества (Conductor of Electricity).

I could go on and on… but I’ll just note that the Big Book covers fiction and nonfiction. And mention that the books on the long list were selected from a total of 401 (!!) works. The short list will be announced on May 31, and winners will be named by November 30.

Disclosures: The usual.

Up Next: Andrei Rubanov’s All That Glitters. Rubanov is also on the Big Book long list, for Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats). I hope to get back to my usual reading pace soon, now that I’ve finished a couple of projects and my teaching semester is winding down.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Pushkin, Pasternak, Platonov, Panova

Well, I’ve done the unthinkable twice today: first I posted a piece to the wrong blog, for which I apologize, now I’ve skipped the letters N (Н) and O in my “Favorite Russian Writers” series. I don’t mean to disappoint fans of Nabokov, Nekrasov, Odoevsky, or Okudzhava but I don’t have any real, true favorites among those letters… despite enjoying Nabokov’s Gogol and some of Ostrovsky’s plays. Beyond a dearth of N and O favorites, the letter P (П) is so much more fun that I’m happy to jump N and O…

The letter P, of course, has to start with Alexander Pushkin, who would be a favorite just for his Повести Белкина (Belkin Tales) (previous post) and the short story “Пиковая дама” (“Queen of Spades”). They get better for me with each rereading. And then there’s all the poetry…

Moving into the Soviet era, I can’t not mention Boris Pasternak, whose Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago) I read multiple times in grad school. Even if I didn’t enjoy Zhivago as much when I read it four years ago (previous post), I still have a deep sentimental attachment to my experiences (re)reading and talking about the book in school, trying to figure out the meaning of the rowan tree and gathering references to sources of light so I could write a paper. Plus there’s the Pasternak dacha, which I visited regularly when I lived in Moscow.

File:Andrei Platonov's grave, Moscow Armenian cemetery.jpg
Platonov's grave, Moscow. 
Then we have Andrei Platonov, whose “Возвращение” (“The Return”) is one of the most perfect short stories I’ve ever read. I think “Родина электричества” (“The Motherland of Electricity”) was my introduction to Platonov, though, followed by his difficult Котлован (The Foundation Pit) (previous post) and his wonderfully disorienting Ювенильное море (Juvenile Sea or Sea of Youth) (previous post). I think disorientation is what I love so much about Platonov: his word choices, word order, and word inventions create texts that jar me linguistically and emotionally. Platonov may be my favorite of these favorites. 

Another favorite is Vera Panova, whose novella Серёжа (translated as Seryozha and Time Walked and A Summer to Remember) is a beautiful account of a child’s life with his mother and new stepfather. My previous post generated lots of very enthusiastic comments from people who first read Seryozha in Tamil, Bengali, and other languages. I thought Panova’s Спутники, (The Train), about people who work on a hospital train during World War 2, was also very good.

Among contemporary writers, Zakhar Prilepin is probably my closest to a favorite, thanks to his Грех (Sin) and a few short stories that I also thought were very good; I enjoyed his political novel Санькя (San’kya) far less.

Bonus! Daniel Kalder, who writes a weekly column for RIA Novosti, sent the link to his interview with Russian critic Lev Danilkin; it’s in English. Danilkin mentions Prilepin and another P writer—Victor Pelevin—as popular, even naming Pelevin when asked “Who are the great authors of today?” I was particularly happy to see Danilkin mention books that discuss the October events of 1993… Enjoy!

Up next: Andrei Rubanov’s Жизнь удалась (All That Glitters, on his literary agency’s page). And more soon about Read Russia and BookExpo America… 

Photo: SreeBot, via Wikipedia

Sunday, April 15, 2012

2012 NatsBest Finalists

I’m a few days late with the National Bestseller short list… here’s the list of six finalists, in order of how many points they were awarded during long list voting. I’m using some titles from literary agents’ pages and taking information for these brief descriptions from various sources, mostly Viktor Toporov’s summary of long list voting, jury member and press reviews, and publisher blurbs.

Aleksandr Terekhov’s Немцы ((The?) Germans) – 12 points. About Luzhkov-era Moscow. The publisher’s blurb calls Germans satirical. (“Satirical” is certainly a genre that seems fitting for Luzhkov-era Moscow…)

Vladimir Lidskii’s Русский садизм (Russian Sadism) – 7 points. Lidskii is the only shortlisted writer I hadn’t heard of, and the NatsBest summary says he was unknown, calling his book “яркий, странный и страшный” (“vivid, strange, and frightening”). Jury member Mikhail Vizel’ said this big novel about the Russian revolution and the “totalitarian empire” that followed is highly naturalistic.

Vladimir Lorchenkov’s Копи Царя Соломона (Tsar Solomon’s Mines) – 7 points. According to the blog called Заметил просто, this energetic action/adventure book is about a Jewish boy named Solomon Tsar. During World War 2 he hides in a cave near a site where the Nazis shoot people; Solomon gathers gold from the bodies, amassing tons. Decades later people want the gold.

Marina Stepnova’s Женщцны Лазаря (excerpt) (The Women of Lazarus) – 7 points. A family saga that starts just after the revolution and centers around a physicist and some of the women in his life. What sounds most interesting to me about The Woman of Lazarus is that Liza Novikova, in a review for Izvestiia, calls Stepnova’s book an “attack on the reading audience of Liudmila Ulitskaya and Dina Rubina.”

Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier) – 6 points. A passage to India to meet a Brahmin, in which the travelers are a poet, a psychiatrist, a jealous couple, and Françoise. Toporov says the ironic storytelling of Françoise is Booker-like.

Anna Starobinets’s Живущий (The Living) – 6 votes. Immortality in a post-disaster world, where everyone on the planet is one. Except a man known as Zero. The cover has to be the scariest on the NatsBest short list. April 17 update: A reader e-mailed to let me know that Hesperus will publish The Living, in James Rann’s translation, this fall. 

The winner will be announced on June 3. No matter who wins, there shouldn’t be any grousing this year that the winner is too famous or too previously prize-laden to be an appropriate choice for an award intended to help a deserving writer become an intellectual/literary bestseller. The writers with the highest profiles are probably Terekhov, who won a Big Book second prize in 2009 for The Stone Bridge, and Starobinets, who is a journalist, screenwriter, and fiction writer. But I don’t think either of them is well-enough known to be a household name.

Speaking of last year’s winner, Dmitry Bykov’s Ostromov, Or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice… I tried reading Ostromov but had to stop after about 90 pages. I loved the setting—Leningrad in the mid-1920s, with seediness and oddities that flashed me back to Vaginov’s city and my reading about the Petersburg mythos—and the characters and Mason theme intrigued me. But Bykov’s wordiness and digressions did me in. And I don’t like to skim books, an approach more than one of you has recommended for reading/enjoying Bykov. I just don’t get much enjoyment from a book when I have to edit so much in my head. 

Up Next: Andrei Rubanov’s Жизнь удалась, which Rubanov’s literary agency calls All That Glitters. Rubanov’s directness is a good antidote to Bykov’s wordiness… and, alas, my spring cold.

Disclaimers: The usual. And thank you to the thoughtful dinner guest who gave me a copy of the Bykov book. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Notable New Translations for 2012 (plus a few from 2011 and for 2013…)

Ah, lists! Now that I’ve finally finished compiling this list, I understand why I procrastinated for so long: the titles may already translated for me but this inventory of newish and upcoming translations is larger than I expected. A very nice problem to have! I’ll start with brand-new and then meander…

A few notes first: If I’ve blogged about a book, I linked my previous post to its Russian title. I linked English titles to publisher pages. Actual release dates (and even titles!) may vary. Finally: my apologies that translator names are missing for a few entries. I’ll fill those in as soon as I can!

I’m happy to report that Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Happiness Is Possible (Счастье возможно), translated by Andrew Bromfield, is out from And Other Stories, a new British publisher. Another book I enjoyed, Zakhar Prilepin’s Sin (Грех), winner of the NatsBest of the decade award, was just released by another new publisher, Glagoslav, in Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas’s translation. Glagoslav also recently brought out a Patterson-Chordas translation of Elena Chizhova’s The Time of Women (Время женщин), not a favorite but a book that brought record numbers of questions after The New York Times ran an article about Chizhova.

Other Glagoslav Russian-English translations on this year’s calendar include: Igor Sakhnovsky’s The Vital Needs of the Dead (Насущные нужды умерших), translated by Julia Kent (June); Alexander Terekhov’s The Stone Bridge (Каменный мост), translated by Patterson and Chordas (Oct.); Oleg Pavlov’s Asystole (Асистолия) (Dec.) by a translator TBA, and Eduard Kochergin’s NatsBest-winning Christened With Crosses (Крещенные крестами), translated by Patterson (Nov.).

A few other relatively new books… Pavel Kostin’s It’s Time (Время пришло), in James Rann’s translation, from Urban Romantics; and two books by Andrey Kurkov from Melville House: Penguin Lost (Закон улитки) and The Case of the General’s Thumb (Игра в отрезанный палец), both translated by George Bird. Another book with an animal theme is forthcoming from Hesperus in June: The Way of Muri (Путь Мури), by Ilya Boyashov, translated by Amanda Love Darragh, is an allegorical novel about a cat wandering Europe; it won the 2007 National Bestseller Award. Another British publisher, Angel Classics, will release Muireann Maguire’s Red Spectres: Russian Twentieth-Century Tales of the Supernatural, a collection that includes pieces by writers including Krzhizhanovsky, Bulgakov, Chayanov, and Peskov.

Books on the way later this year include Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair (Венерин волос), in Marian Schwartz’s translation, from Open Letter, and St. Petersburg Noir, edited by literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen, and published by Akashic with commissioned stories from writers including Sergei Nosov, Lena Eltang, and Andrei Rubanov (Aug.). Amazon Crossing has several books by Andrei Gelasimov, translated by Marian Schwartz, listed with various dates in late 2012 and 2013; my favorite is The Lying Year (Год обмана), currently listed for January 2013. I should also mention two nonfiction books Marian translated for Yale University Press: The Leningrad Blockade, 1941-1944, edited by Richard Bidlack and Nikita Lomagin, is on the schedule for June, and Aleksandra Shatskikh’s Black Square, with scholarship on Malevich, arrives later.

What else? Another book with “happy” in the title: in November, New York Review Books will bring out Happy Moscow, a compilation of works by Andrey Platonov in translations by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler, with Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. The book includes a revised translation of the title novel plus two stories, an article, and a film script. Robert & Elizabeth Chandler—along with Sibelan Forrester, Anna Gunin, and Olga Meerson—have another title on the way: Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, coming from Penguin Classics in December 2012. Robert Chandler told me the book is roughly half “true folktales”; the other stories are from Pushkin, Bazhov, Teffi, and Platonov.

Last—but definitely not least—are titles from Glas, many part of Glas’s collaboration with the Debut Prize: Arslan Khasavov’s Sense (Смысл) translated by Arch Tait (spring-summer)¸ Vlas Doroshevich’s What the Emperor Cannot Do: Tales and Legends of the Orient translated by Rowen Glie and John Dewey (spring); and an anthology with seven stories, Still Waters Run Deep: YoungWomen’s Writing from Russia (September). Several other Glas books are already available: The Scared Generation, two short novels by Boris Yampolsky (The Old Arbat/Арбат, режимная улица) and Vasil Bykov (The Manhunt/Облава), translated by Rachel Polonsky and John Dewey… Mendeleev Rock, with Andrei Kuzechkin’s title novella (Менделеев-рок) and Pavel Kostin’s Rooftop Anesthesia (Анестезия крыш), both translated by Andrew Bromfield… and Off the Beaten Track: Stores by Russian Hitchhikers, with Igor Savelyev’s Pale City (Бледный город), Irina Bogatyreva’s АвтоSTOP (Off the Beaten Track), and Tatiana Mazepina’s Traveling Towards Paradise; translators respectively, Amanda Love Darragh, Arch Tait, and Ainsley Morse and Mihaela Pacurar. On the way: Alexander Snegirev’s Petroleum Venus (Нефтяная Венера), apparently in early 2013.

One more last but not least: Russian Life sent me two books in recent months… Maya Kucherskaya’s Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy (Современный патерик), translated by Alexei Bayer, is described on the back of my review copy as a mix of fact, fiction, myth, and history. And a story collection by Stephan Erik Clark, Vladimir’s Mustache, is written in English but set in Russia, in various centuries. It looks promising.

I have a horrible feeling I’ve forgotten something or somebody… but it won’t be Andrew Bromfield’s translation of A Displaced Person (Перемещённое лицо), the third/last of Vladimir Voinovich’s Chonkin books, due out some day, some month from Northwestern University Press! Please add a comment or send me a note if I’ve forgotten (or didn’t know about) your book(s). Or, horrors, made an error.

Post-Posting Additions:
April 17: Hesperus will publish James Rann’s translation of Anna Starobinets’s Живущий in fall 2012, as The Living.

Andrew Bromfield's translation of Hamid Ismailov's A Poet and Bin-Laden came out from Glagoslav in fall 2012; Andrew also wrote that author Rustam Ibragimbekov self-published Andrew's translation of Solar Plexus, a book set in one of my favorite places to visit, Baku. 

Edwin Trommelen's Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka, translated from the Dutch by David Stephenson and published by Russian Life Books, presents lots of cultural background on vodka. There are many, many bits from literature: this is a fun book to have on a side table for some quick reading.

One more 2012 listing from Glagoslav:  Elvira Baryakina's White Shanghai: A Novel of the Roaring Twenties in China, translated by Anna Muzychka and Benjamin Kuttner.

Listings gathered at the 2013 AWP conference:
Two from Northwestern University Press: Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve Chairs, translated by Anne O. Fisher, and Alexander Herzen's A Herzen Reader, translated and edited by Kathleen Parthe. Biblioasis published David Helwig's translations of three Chekhov stories in a beautiful illustrated book called About Love
Two other bits of news:
I’ve been excited (for at least a year!) that Russia will be the featured country at this year’s BookExpo America. I’m especially excited now that I’m working on preparations for the many Read Russia events scheduled for early June in New York… the list of writers scheduled to attend includes Olga Slavnikova and Mikhail Shishkin, plus a bunch of Debut Prize writers. I’ll be writing more, soon, about BEA and Read Russia.

Also, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, is organizing a conference, “Decadence or Renaissance? Russian Literature Since 1991,” for September 24-26, 2012. Conference organizers are soliciting proposals for papers; information is here. I hope to go!

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual, with too many specifics to list: I’ve met, worked on paid projects for, discussed translation and specific projects, chatted and shared meals with, and otherwise been in contact with numerous individuals and entities mentioned in this post. I received review copies of some books listed.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fly Me to the Moon (Please?): Pelevin’s Omon Ra

Saying that Omon Ra is my favorite Viktor Pelevin novel isn’t exactly the start of a rave review—I’ve never been a Pelevin fan—but I enjoyed Omon Ra enough that I’m not being snarky or damning with faint praise. Omon Ra, a book about one man’s experience with the space program, didn’t convert me into a Pelevin devotee but it did hold my interest for 190 pages of large print. And it did give me a few good laughs. Even better, Omon Ra’s structure is linear and simple, and it lacks the wacky implosions of books like Home Zapiens and Numbers.

Omon Ra chronicles the space adventures of its title character, one Omon Krivomazov, whose policeman father names him for the special forces unit of Russian law and order; Omon’s older brother (deceased from meningitis) was named Ovir, after the group that keeps track of visas and residency registrations. Omon, however, dreams of the freedom of outer space instead of earthly controls: as a child, he lives near the Kosmos movie theater and enjoys films about pilots. He even pretends to be one in the play cottage outside his building, and he makes friends with another boy who wants to fly.

Omon’s glorification of the space program has an almost spiritual feel to it: Omon thinks weightlessness must be the only true freedom and he sees no peace and freedom on earth. Meaning Omon and his friend go to flight school, where (of course!) propaganda and the religion of politics become important aspects of their lives and mission. A lieutenant-colonel speaks to the new cadets, telling them, in Andrew Bromfield’s translation, “…we have to remember the responsibility we bear on our shoulders, don’t we? And make no mistake about it, by the time you get your diplomas and your ranks, you’ll be Real Men with a great big capital M, the kind that exist only in the land of Soviets.” Lenin appears, too, with two “major works on the moon—‘The Moon and Rebellion’ and ‘Advice from an Outsider’.”

Truth is stranger than fiction: 1970 Soviet lunar rover.
Since we’re in the land of Lenin and Soviets—as depicted by Pelevin, who loves to twist what’s already far, far askew—the space program isn’t quite what we might expect. ***Unless we already know the book’s secret! I will now commence including details that might spoil Omon Ra’s plot… That said, I knew the book’s secret but didn’t feel especially sorry I did.*** When Omon and several others begin their training for a moon mission, they’re stationed in an underground compound and told they’ll make the ultimate sacrifice. Just as odd: Omon’s lunar rover is a low-tech piece of equipment with a bicycle frame and “spy-hole lenses” that “distorted everything so badly there was no way I could tell what was outside the thin steel wall of the hull.”

The fact that Omon lives to tell his story means something goes wrong—well, right—and Omon, the guy whose lunar rover isn’t so different from the bike he rode as a kid, doesn’t make it to the moon. But that doesn’t mean he’s cheated out on a journey: he still has a flight of sorts, complete with a supply of тушёнка (canned meat) and radio conversations with his flight colleagues, who apparently die in the early stages of the expedition.

The reason Omon Ra worked for me is that Pelevin manages to combine risky satirical material—shooting down the space program as a propagandistic fake that keeps people underground, in the dark, away from that weightless freedom—with the solid structure I mentioned earlier. Even if some of the book’s motifs, such as certain central Moscow locations, felt a little heavy-handed, Pelevin shows decent self-control with his material, even as he draws in the Tunguska event—how could it not get a mention?—and fake hunting trips for VIPs. And, yes, even Pink Floyd.

Level for Non-Native Speakers of Russian: 2.0 or 2.5/5. The language in Omon Ra wasn’t as difficult as the inherent absurdities and oddities, some of which felt a little inconsistent.

Up Next: That list of translations, which I will have to finish for next week: yesterday I started Dmitrii Bykov’s Ostromov, a big, long book with small print that will take weeks. It hooks in nicely with some of my other Petersburg reading. (Bely’s Petersburg has been set aside, at least for the duration of the semester… it just doesn’t mix with the rather hurried pace of life right now…)

Disclosures: I always enjoy speaking with translator Andrew Bromfield and publisher New Directions.

Photo credit: NASA via Wikipedia. This photo looked eerily similar to what I imagined as I read Omon Ra.