Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Big Book’s Rather Long Short List

I wanted to be sure to make a very quick post with the Big Book Award’s 2012 short(er) list before heading off tomorrow for BookExpo America and lots of ReadRussia events… three of the writers on the short list will be in New York: Vladimir Makanin, Zakhar Prilepin, and Andrei Rubanov. Two books—those by Nosov and Stepnova—are also NatsBest finalists, and Eltang’s book has already won an award from Russian Prize. I don’t know much about the other books on the list other than Prilepin’s, which I’m reading, so am most certainly lacking in nuance for translating the titles!

  • 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)
Disclaimer: I am working with Read Russia on projects.

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.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

BookExpo America & Andrei Rubanov’s Good Life

With BookExpo America—which has a big, huge Russia focus this year—coming up in about four weeks, I’m focusing my reading on BEA writers for the next month or so. Today’s post, about Andrey Rubanov’s Жизнь удалась (All That Glitters), is the first of a series of pieces about books by writers who will be at BEA.

A brief point of information before I get to Rubanov: The Russian global market forum at BEA is just one part of a bigger program, Read Russia 2012, which includes a slew of events in New York open to the public, an expo of books and art for children, and a documentary on contemporary Russian writers. As I’ve mentioned before, I am (disclosure!, disclosure!) very happily working away on projects for Read Russia and will be at BEA, which I love every year… meaning I am beyond excited for this year’s fair. An intensifier for all that excitement: an anthology of Russian stories will include two of my translations, plus some of my favorite writers, including Margarita Khemlin and Vladimir Makanin, will be coming to New York for BEA.

So! On to Mr. Rubanov’s book, known as All That Glitters on his agent’s Web site. What I found most interesting about Rubanov’s novel—which covers the disappearance and subsequent finding of a Moscow wine salesman named Matvei Matveevich Matveev—is Rubanov’s mixture of two genres: social novel and detective novel. Matveev disappears after saying goodbye to his loyal wife, Marina, at the beginning of the book, and Rubanov interweaves numerous characters’ timelines, establishing MMM’s rise from aimless youth to a member of the upper-middle class who falls very ill after visiting two men who promise to forgive his rather substantial debt.

Rubanov also offers histories of the men MMM goes to see: a retired hockey player who goes on to head up an NGO for retired athletes and his evil sidekick, a prickly former doctor known as Kaktus. He works in a police detective, too, a hardboiled lone wolf, Svinets, (“lead,” as in Pb), whom Marina hires to find MMM. This is a lot of main characters, but I thought Rubanov managed them and his supporting characters efficiently, showing, for example, how MMM and Kaktus crossed paths in high school—old jealousies run horribly deep here—and revealing back stories in a way that combines suspense with (almost) plodding detail.

I thought Rubanov did even better on the social side, describing the Moscow nineties with mentions of the MMM pyramid scheme, which interplays well with Matveev’s name, crooked nonprofit organizations, and the idea that qualities like decisiveness and stick-to-itiveness were more important in that era than education. He also notes the October Events of 1993; Matveev keeps a distance, as he did in 1991.

Another most interesting thing about All That Glitters is its kitsch element, something I noticed even before I read that Rubanov himself called the book “чистый кич” (“pure kitsch”). I think it was MMM’s focus on a happy orange sky, a motif in the book that sounds suspiciously like the bright future of socialist realism, that tipped me off early in the book. Plus characters using the title words, which, in dialogue, might sound more like “life is good” or “the good life.” Then there’s the removal of the pads on one character’s fingers (this has some icky consequences), the hardboiled cop’s tractor-driving brother outside Moscow, and all those searches for empty lives with lucre that (as we know) can’t buy happiness. Of course the novel wouldn’t have been complete without a stripper. Or Svinets having to watch the same TV channel as the neighbors, who live beyond a thin wall, so he can feel like he has his own space.

The final most interesting thing about All That Glitters is that it works fairly well as a slow-burn thriller with lively language and a strong social element that generates sadness, humor, and irony. Despite being a little overloaded with information and back story in many spots, with Rubanov’s take on Moscow in the nineties and the choice of hockey (which I love) instead of, say, soccer or basketball, All That Glitters managed to keep me well-entertained even when my head was cloudy from a cold. 

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 2.5-3.0/5.0. Not especially difficult, though there is some slang. I loved seeing the word мебеля in print!

Disclosures: I am working on projects for Read Russia. And I look forward to seeing Julia Goumen, of Goumen&Smirnova Literary Agency, at BEA next month. I also hope to hear Andrey Rubanov speak. He is, by the way, a great admirer of Varlam Shalamov.

Up Next: Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Люди в голом (People in the Nude). Then other BEA writers: Sergei Shargunov and Yuz Aleshkovsky.