Monday, May 27, 2013

The 2013 Big Book Short List

I’ve been so caught up in work and preparations for my trip to England next month for the Translators’ Coven that I completely forgot about today’s Big Book short list announcement! Before I head to the beach for some Memorial Day reading, here’s a quick list, in the order the books were listed on

I’m particularly looking forward to reading the Buida, Kucherskaya, and Levental novels, though I’m hoping to give all this year’s fiction a read. Off to the beach!

Disclosures: The usual, with direct and indirect ties to Big Book and many of the books on the list.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Doors of Deception: Pelevin’s Burning Bush

In a recent email conversation, a colleague and I talked about Viktor Pelevin not being my cup of tea, coffee, or cocoa… that was before I read Операция «Burning Bush» (Operation “Burning Bush”), the first piece in Pelevin’s Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы (Pineapple Water for the Fair Lady). Burning Bush, like Omon Ra before it (previous post), didn’t turn me into a Pelevin fanatic, but the novella does—continuing with the drink theme—serve up some interesting glasses of kvass.

Kvass tank, 1997.
I don’t like kvass in real life, but I can’t help but appreciate the literary kvass served up in Burning Bush because Pelevin slips in an acid mickey: our first-person narrator, Semyon Levitan, is recruited for a special FSB project that requires training time—lots of training time—spent in a sensory deprivation chamber. While tripping on acid his FSB master puts in his kvass. Part of what makes this novella fun is that it involves none other than George W. Bush: Levitan’s initial mission is to speak, as God, with Bush through an implant in Bush’s tooth. Don’t worry, Levitan is an English teacher who’s more than capable of chatting with Bush.

I haven’t read a lot of Pelevin but I certainly recognized elements that felt like spillovers from Omon Ra: strange secret government programs that require strange secret training and result in strange secret deceptions. There’s also a spiritual element that plays off Daniil Andreyev’s Роза мира (The Rose of the World), a book I’ve never read. Someone once gave it to me as a gift but it got lost in transit somewhere between Moscow and Maine, in an ill-fated box that also contained Lolita, The Brothers Karamazov, and materials about evaluating NGO projects. I hope everyone’s coexisting somewhere in peace. The important thing here is that the references to Andreyev involve Stalin and Satan.

Pelevin generally tends to lose me somewhere, to some degree, and Burning Bush is no exception: I thought the novella worked best before Pelevin began referencing The Rose of the World. The problem isn’t so much that I hadn’t read Andreyev—there’s a chunk of text in Burning Bush, I’d already heard about The Rose of the World, and it’s easy to find background online—but that Pelevin’s use of Andreyev felt a little too heavy-handed to me as a part of the story, even though the Satan element itself fits just fine. I generally seem to think Pelevin’s satire and descriptions of twisted but almost realistic contemporary situations and characters are the best aspects of his books, so I was pleased Burning Bush is a more restrained piece than some others I’ve read—Numbers comes to mind—and doesn’t implode by getting too outlandish too fast.

Which is to say it was the light, fun stuff that made Burning Bush good evening reading material after some long work days. There was plenty to enjoy: Levitan’s ability to imitate voices, the very thought of someone chatting with Bush through Bush’s tooth, fun references to Russian poetry, Tony Blair, and American political and pop culture, including Pulp Fiction, which is wildly popular in Russia. Speaking of “light,” I’ve purposely gone light on some of the details in Burning Bush in case the novella is ever translated into English.

A Note on the NatsBest: The National Bestseller award is back, with new sponsorship from film company United Partnership and the television channel 2x2. The seven-member jury that will choose the winner includes two representatives from the new sponsors and two writers: Sergei Zhadan, whose Voroshilovgrad (previous post) I read in Zaven Babloyan’s Ukrainian-to-Russian translation, and Aleksandr Terekhov, who won last year’s NatsBest for Germans. This year’s winner will be announced on June 2.

Level for Nonnative Readers of Russian: 2.0 out of 5.0, though the book may have felt easier than it is because of the humor.

Russian Name: Виктор Пелевин

Up Next: I’m not sure! NatsBest, perhaps a mishmash of short stories or Leonid Iuzefovich’s Prince of the Wind… or letter S favorite writers…

Image Credit: Kvas vendor, 1997, in Kaliningrad/Königsberg/Koenigsberg, from MicHael Galkovsky, via Wikipedia. I remember seeing these kvass tanks on the street!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Jumble: Two Books, One Coven, and Six Literary Award Finalists

I took a break last week after a rather bloody incident involving a grater, a chunk of Pineland sharp cheddar cheese, and a middle finger. Now that I’m back to full typing capacity, despite an occasional twinge in the finger, here’s a jumble of a post to get me caught up…

I’ll admit that last week I was more than happy to procrastinate writing about Sergei Nosov’s Грачи улетели (The Rooks Have Flown/Left/Gone): in keeping with the jumble theme, The Rooks is a nearly indescribable jumble of characters, places, and motifs. Nosov tells the story of three old friends—a teacher, a typewriter repairman and watchman, and a former flyswatter salesman and would-be artist(e)—in three non-chronological sections. Much of the book is set in St. Petersburg, which lends itself to some nice passages about changing names and times. And references to Dostoevsky. And peeing off a bridge.

I thought The Rooks worked particularly well when Nosov examined contemporary art—one of his characters makes a wonderful trip to the Hermitage and stares in the abyss of Malevich’s glassed-in Black Square—and the fine lines between art and life. The section set in Germany, where the flyswatter salesman and would-be artist lives for a time and hosts the other two for a painful visit, felt less successful because it felt, simply, too long. Despite some structural misgivings, Nosov won me over with atmosphere, love for St. Petersburg, and a tone that avoids the cloying and preciousness thanks, in large part, to tart commentary on contemporary art and culture. The epilogue contains developments that brought varying degrees of surprise and showed how little we may know our friends and literary characters. It also cemented my interpretation of the book’s title as a reference to fall, playing off the name of Aleksei Savrasov’s painting of rooks that have returned in spring.

Iurii Trifonov’s Обмен (The Exchange) is a lovely jumble, too, a long story about family that blends past and present, private and public: Trifonov focuses on Viktor Dmitriev, whose wife Lena wants to arrange an apartment exchange so they (and their daughter) can live with Dmitriev’s mother, Ksenia, who is horribly ill. The description of The Exchange in Neil Cornwall and Nicole Christian’s Reference Guide to Russian Literature is so good and detailed (even if it’s cut off!) that I’ll just focus on impressions. I think what struck me most about The Exchange was the grayness of Dmitriev’s Soviet-era existence: his daily routine, his past affair with a co-worker he thinks would have made a better wife than Lena, and, of course, disappointment. Everything is beautifully observed and described though I find this sort of quiet—or perhaps muted and repressed?—desperation even sadder than the harsher chernukha of the post-Soviet era. I mean that as a statement of respect rather than a criticism. Particularly since I have to think there’s a reason Trifonov chose to include that cesspool.

File:Oxford City Birdseye.jpg
Oxford from the air... must get up early enough to see city before coven...
On another note, I’m very excited about Translators’ Coven: Fresh Approaches to Literary Translation from Russian, a weekend workshop I’ll be attending at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, next month. I’ll be chairing a roundtable discussion about publishing and translations, and speaking on a panel about translating dialogue in drama. The week after the workshop, there will be a series of events about poetry translation at Pushkin House in London. A huge thank you to Oliver Ready and Robert Chandler for organizing all this. It’s a wonderful chance to learn and get caught up with London-based colleagues. I can’t wait!

Speaking of which… Pushkin House launched a new book award, the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, “to further public understanding of the Russian-speaking world, by encouraging and rewarding the very best non-fiction writing on Russia, and promoting serious discussion on the issues raised.” I’m always vowing (and, generally, failing) to read more (okay, any!) book-length nonfiction that complements my fiction reading, so the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize short list, which covers a wonderfully broad assortment of topics, is a convenient place to start looking for candidates:
  • Anne Applebaum: The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956
  • Masha Gessen: Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
  • Thane Gustafson: Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Fortune in Russia
  • Donald J. Raleigh: Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Post War Generation
  • Karl Schlögel: Moscow, 1937
  • Douglas Smith: Former People: The Last Days of Russia’s Aristocracy
FYI: Languagehat has posted about Soviet Baby Boomers and Moscow, 1937. Moscow, 1937 sounds particularly fun…

Reading Levels for Non-Native Readers of Russian: Medium for both the Nosov and Trifonov books.

Writer Names in Russian: Сергей Носов and Юрий Трифонов.

Up Next: A novella (or two?) by Victor Pelevin.

Image Credit: Oxford City Birdseye from SirMetal, via Wikimedia Commons.