Sunday, August 20, 2017

August Is Women in Translation Month: Translations of Russian Women

Looking back at my Women in Translation Month post from 2014 was an interesting exercise. For one thing, the blogger known as Biblibio, who started Women in Translation Month back in 2014, now uses her real name, Meytal Radzinski. And she continues to read and write about tons of books (do visit her blog!) and has generated tremendous awareness of and reactions to gender-based disparities in translated literature. According to the Women in Translation site (there’s a site now!), only about 30% of new translations into English are of books written by women. This year’s list of Russian-to-English translations (here) is in that range.

That’s a downer of a datum, but I’m happy there are books—meaning books translated into English—already available or on the way from some of the authors I mentioned in my old post. I’m working on Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog (previous post) for the Russian Library/Columbia University Press and my translation of Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок (Italian Lessons) (previous post) is in process, too, for World Editions. Meanwhile, Carol Apollonio’s translation of Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom (previous post) is coming this year, from Deep Vellum, and Melanie Moore’s translation of Khemlin’s The Investigator (previous post) is already available from Glagoslav. I’m also at various stages with two other books, both for Oneworld, written by women that I didn’t mention in that post because I hadn’t yet read them: Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (previous post) will soon be edited and I’ll be starting on Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky (previous post) later this year.

Since I’m one to accentuate the positive—while simultaneously trying to find ways to counter the negative—I want to highlight three of the books on this year’s translation list that are written by women and that (bias warning!) particularly interest me:
  • Ksenia Buksha’s The Freedom Factory, translated by Anne Fisher (Phoneme Media). I’m embarrassingly long overdue to read this National Bestseller Award winner, which I’ve heard so many good things about over the years.
  • Polina Dashkova’s Madness Treads Lightly, translated by Marian Schwartz (Amazon Crossing). I read lots of Dashkova’s detective novels, including this one, in the early 2000s, when I got myself back into Russian reading: her writing and characters are clear, and she always seems to address social and political issues, too. Quality genre fiction like Dashkova’s deserves to be translated. Publishers Weekly gave Madness, in Marian’s translation, a starred review.
  • Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov (Russian Library/Columbia University Press). It’s great to see a translation of a nineteenth-century novel written by a woman… and this one sounds like particular fun. I’m looking forward to it! This translation also received a star from Publishers Weekly.
This year’s disappointingly all-male Big Book shortlist (the list) made me vow to seek out female authors’ books that made 2017’s Big Book longlist or National Bestseller shortlist. (I’m sure there are plenty of books that will keep me reading far longer than, say, Pelevin’s Big Book finalist Methuselah’s Lamp, or The Last Battle of the Chekists and Masons.) I mentioned a few candidates in my Big Book shortlist post: Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Look at Him, maybe?), Anna Kozlova’s NatsBest-winning F20, and Elena Dolgopyat’s short stories. Other candidates, whose authors are completely new to me, include Olga Breininger’s There Was No Adderall in the Soviet Union and Viktoria Lebedeva’s Без труб и барабанов (Without Trumpets and Drums). I’ll be interested to see what hits other award lists later this year—more lists, from the Yasnaya Polyana, Booker, and NOS awards are on the way—and what other books might find their way into English in the coming years.

More literature by women will make its way into translation one poem at a time, one story at a time, one book at a time… so I’m just going to keep on reading. And translating. And recommending good books to publishers. Translator recommendations, after all, are how some of the translations mentioned in this post got signed in the first place. And I know there are more on the way.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhok), which has taken over my reading: this polyphonic novel set in Tadzhikistan is ridiculously suspenseful and absorbing. And more Big Book reading: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Mysterious Year and Shamil Idiatullin’s Brezhnev City.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Big Books 1 & 2: Slapovsky and Pelevin

It gives me no joy whatsoever to report that the first two Big Book finalists I’m done with weren’t very satisfying. It gives me even less joy to say that this pair left me so indifferent that I couldn’t bring myself to finish either one. I read most of Aleksei Slapovsky’s Неизвестность, which I guess I’ll continue calling Uncertainty, but could only get to page 41 of Viktor Pelevin’s Лампа Мафусаила, или Крайняя битва чекистов с масонами (Methuselah’s Lamp, or The Last Battle of the Chekists and Masons) before throwing in a frayed old towel. I know it’s time to quit a book when I don’t want to sit down to read.

So. Slapovsky’s Uncertainty was a mixed experience; this is the book that bills itself as “роман века,” which in this case means it’s a novel covering the all-important century of 1917-2017. As I mentioned in my Big Book descriptions, Uncertainty is told through diaries, poetry, and other written materials, including a letter, a court’s death sentence, and interview transcripts. The Russian word for “datafiction” has been used to describe the genre; it’s not inappropriate.

My primary problem with Uncertainty is its tremendous unevenness. The novel is a family saga of sorts—its contributors from a family of Smirnovs span six (or so—I’ll admit I don’t want to go back to count) generations over the course of a century—and the contributors’ contributions vary tremendously in quality, length, and interest. The first chunk, Nikolai Smirnov’s diary (1917-1937), looks at the period immediately after the 1917 coup, examining political and personal (dis)loyalties with varying levels of detail; Volga Germans, the Cheka, and Nikolai’s relationships with women enter into the diary. There is also folk wisdom, such as a mention that the primary fight isn’t between socialism and capitalism or various social classes but between smart and foolish people.

I found the next chunk, a diary written by Vladimir (1936-1941), the most interesting: Vladimir is a teenager who’s very taken with Nikolai Ostrovsky’s novel How the Steel Was Tempered and he addresses many of his entries to Pavka, its hero. Vladimir faces difficulties from being critical in school, troubles with girlfriends, and problems being taken into the armed forces. An eye chart thus makes its way into his diary. So do Stalin’s famous words that a son doesn’t answer for his father. The interview transcripts, recorded in 2016 by Anya Smirnova with her grandmother, father, and mother, follow Vladimir’s diary… and this is where the book began flailing for me. There’s some moderately lively and funny material—asides, one-sided conversations because someone’s out of the recorder’s range—and some contemporary material about teenage Anya’s friendship (or more?) with a much-older man who’s not Russian. But the transcripts are often fluffy and contrived, so I skimmed a bit to get to the grandmother, Ekaterina, who’s one of the book’s most interesting characters: she discusses relationships, abortion, and the family curse, which she says is wanting to please everybody in order to be praised. Toward the end of the last tape, she orders vodka in a café. It’s an understatement to say I think Uncertainty could have benefited from more female perspectives. A fairly brief death sentence for Anton, dated 1954-1962, follows the transcripts.

Skimming changed to skipping when I reached a bulky swath of stories, otherwise unpublished, written by Viktor, an illustrator, dated 1965-2016. I read a bit more than half and couldn’t go on: the stories describe childhood and adulthood, and probably the most affecting involve Viktor’s alcoholism. Not much in the stories felt original enough to keep me reading, though. The novel’s final piece, a 2017 letter by Gleb Smirnov, addresses a familiar topic by focusing largely on Gleb’s relationship with his girlfriend. In some senses it brings the reader back to Nikolai’s diary: for very different reasons, neither of them spells well.

Uncertainty is unsatisfying not so much because it’s so fractured—Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder (previous post) is fractured, too, reflecting fractured times and fractured families, and Ulitskaya makes better use of form than does Slapovsky—but because, perhaps paradoxically, there aren’t enough motifs to reinforce the family ties and breaks that connect and disconnect the various generations, and, most crucially, keep the reader engaged with the drama and tragedy of problems that face the Smirnovs over the century. All that damage and brokenness may be the point here but—and this felt even worse—I also constantly had the sense I wasn’t receiving any new information from the book, that I was reading familiar, recycled material from other novels. It seems as if I read a mishmash of material that started off with some moderately interesting stories about family and history… but then the book became so thoroughly dull and muddled in the middle that I lost interest. I do wonder if Viktor’s stories clarify anything about previous narrators, though I don’t wonder nearly enough to go back and continue reading. There’s a lot of uncertainty about fates in Uncertainty and the long section of Viktor’s stories created a brutal break in momentum. (Critic Vladislav Tolstov called those stories “графоманские тексты,” a graphomaniac’s texts; Tolstov’s final paragraph on Uncertainty, which I read as I was finalizing this post, beautifully sums up my thoughts on the book.) Although I give Slapovsky credit for even attempting to address Big Questions in Russian history, Uncertainty’s inability to hold my attention—I love reading about the human side of history in fiction—is frustrating.

I suppose it’s something of a plus that I was done with Methuselah’s Lamp so quickly that I wasn’t bored for long. That reading followed my familiar Pelevin pattern: after reading a not-so-satisfying book (Uncertainty), Pelevin pulled me in with his narrator’s voice. But it didn’t take many pages for our narrator Creampie’s tale to lose its oomph. The connection of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” with Creampie’s prattling about investments and gold didn’t seem clever for long. That, combined with a near-death experience, signaled the beginning of the end of my reading.

Disclaimers: I’m a member of the Literary Academy, the Big Book Award’s jury, and received electronic copies of all the Big Book finalists. You, too, can read most of the Big Book finalists for free on Bookmate, here: nine of the ten finalists, all but Pelevin, are available and the Bookmate platform is easy to use and synch between devices. I’m using it myself for a lot of my Big Book reading.

Up next: I’m still chipping away at Gigolashvili’s Mysterious Year, which looks brillianter and brillianter after these two books. I’m also working on Andrei Rubanov’s The Patriot, which captures a time and place even if it’s not my book. I’m most enjoying Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhok), which I just started.



Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Books in English: Expats, Love, Life, Literature, and Moscow

On the surface, two novels set in Moscow that I read this spring and summer—Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist and Guillermo Erades’s Back to Moscow—have a lot in common. Both feature young expats who come to Moscow at tumultuous times, both include lots of literary references, and both end rather sadly, with departures that fit their times. Both novels also mention the dangers of falling ic(icl)e(s) in spring. The differences, of course, are greater the similarities; I’ll try to summarize…

Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist begins in 1914, when Gerty Freely moves from England to Moscow, to work as a governess for the Kobelev family. What struck me most at the beginning of the book was Gerty’s appreciation of Moscow, where she and I both love walking. Here’s the beginning of a paragraph early in the novel:

Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections. At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might. I was still ignorant of politics, yet as a Chapel girl I couldn’t help but be shocked by the contrast between the golden domes and palaces and the crowds of beggars at their doors.

My favorite part of the novel begins after the Kobelev family decamps for Yalta, thanks to unrest after the coup/revolution of 1917, leaving the house in the care of servants and family friend/lodger Nikita Slavkin, a futurist and inventor whose ideas include things like “unbreakable rubber crockery sets that you could fold together and use as a pillow [and] a portable shower bath.” As time passes, Gerty and Nikita become involved (somewhat) romantically, some of the Kobelevs return, the house becomes a commune for young members who share things as intimate as underwear, and there are mentions of real-life futurists. Beyond the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by early Soviet communal living experiments—there’s even a daily timetable here for comrades’ activities and there are jealousies, too—and any book that quotes Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Incantation by Laughter” (in Gary Kern’s translation in the book) wins lots of bonus points, particularly since Gerty notes, “read aloud, [it] always reduced us to helpless snorting heaps.”

Hobson wrote The Vanishing Futurist in the first-person, from Gerty’s perspective as she’s going through old papers and looking for a way to tell her daughter about her past. I particularly admire Hobson’s ability to combine the light—crushes, humor, whimsical inventions—with political and historical realities of the time, which are, of course, linked to Slavkin’s disappearance. Hobson also has a light touch with bits of Russian she includes, mentioning, for example, “using the polite “Vy” or noting that millet porridge was called blondinka, something I hadn’t known, perhaps because I’d do just about anything to avoid the stuff. Whether my kasha of choice is grechka or blondinka, Peter Pomerantsev’s blurb on the back of my book is very apt: “That rare case of a profound book being unputdownable.” That made The Vanishing Futurist perfect reading when I was painfully busy and particularly valued an enjoyable, smart novel with a good sense of plot and history.

The operative cover blurb for Erades’s debut novel, Back to Moscow, comes from Publishers Weekly: “Russia’s capital is the most dynamic character in Erades’s boozy bildungsroman.” Russian literature grad student Martin comes to turn-of-the-century Moscow with surprisingly low proficiency in either Russian or literature, and seems to spend more of his time studying The eXile and going to bars (some of which I remember from the 1990s, too) to drink and meet women. The biggest problem with Martin as a character is that he’s kind of a jerk, a fairly unpleasant first-person narrator whose attitudes toward women make him a literary character that I at least hoped would become a prime candidate for redemption. What felt oddest to me is that when I think back to The eXile of the 1990s, Martin seems like almost a milquetoast and/or a wannabe by comparison; I wonder if that might have been among Erades’s intentions. In any case, his treatment of his girlfriends can be awfully callous and he does some truly dumbass things, but his defense of a tutor early in the book establishes that at least part of his heart is kind. Making him redeemable.

Beyond his (nearly) main occupation of boozing and womanizing, Martin spends a lot of his time reading Russian novels, analyzing and discussing female characters (here we have life and literature!) in a way that felt a bit Cliff Note-like to me, doing occasional work with a Russian businessman friend, and, yes, enjoying Moscow itself. I can’t say that Back to Moscow is my ideal novel—it feels a bit too disjointed, obvious, laden with gratuitous uses of words like “elitny” and “interesno,” and rather predictable twists, though I suppose that’s typical of the genre—but Erades, like Hobson, too, manages to conjure up the feeling of being an expat exploring Moscow. Of course it helps that Erades gifts Martin with a nice apartment by Pushkin Square, making it all the easier, for example, to go to the Stanislavsky Theater to see Heart of a Dog, a Bulgakov adaptation I loved back in the day, too… And I give a nice plus to Martin’s tutor for talking with him about superfluous men.

What’s odd about the combination of these two books, which I read in fairly rapid succession, is that I enjoyed The Vanishing Futurist far more during my reading but came to appreciate Back to Moscow nearly as much after finishing. I suppose that’s partially because of an observation in Erades’s very brief, very last chapter, and partially (to suppose again) because Martin comes to Moscow around the time I left and his account of his girlfriends’ sadness about current events (among other things) felt so familiar. Though they’re not my own, I found plenty of sadness and exhilaration to identify with in Gerty’s world and in Martin’s world. Finally, I have to say I was pleased to see that at least two Goodreaders said Back to Moscow made them more interested in Russian classical literature. I hope The Vanishing Futurist helps bring Khelbnikov, as well as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Blok, who also get mentions, to some new readers, too.

For more: Max Liu, independent.co.uk, on Back to Moscow (he also mentions the superfluous man discussion) and Anna Aslanyan, spectator.co.uk on The Vanishing Futurist.

Disclaimers: Thank you to Faber & Faber for the copy of The Vanishing Futurist and to Picador for the copy of Back to Moscow!

Up Next: Aleksei Slapovsky’s rather uneven but easy-reading Неизвестность, which I suppose I’ll call Uncertainty.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Russian-to-English Translations for 2017

I may be wrong but I think this year’s translation list hits an all-time high [edit: I was very wrong! It turns out that 2014 is larger, though a) the 2017 list may yet grow significantly and b) there could be more 2014 listings that were postponed to 2015.] in terms of sheer numbers: 42 44 45 47 48 49 books of many genres. Of course I’m posting a little later this year than last (more time for books to hit sites and catalogues!) but I think a few factors account for the increase. I’ve mentioned two of those factors—ongoing grant programs from the Institute of Translation and the Prokhorov Fund’s Transcript Program—in previous years and know that continued funding plays a big role in helping translations reach readers. A third factor—the Russian Library at Columbia University Press—was new last year, with three books, but has five highly varied books scheduled for publication this year. That may only be a difference of two books this time around but the Russian Library has an ambitious schedule for the coming years.


As always, there are caveats (but not caviar) to accompany the list. This list is just a start—I’ll be adding books throughout the year and making corrections as necessary. Please e-mail me with any changes or additions; my address is on the sidebar. As last year, this is a global list that includes new translations and some retranslations. I’ve linked titles on the list to publishers’ pages wherever possible. Publication dates are notoriously subject to slippage for various and sundry reasons; I transfer books from year to year as necessary and have tried to cross out titles on previous lists if they weren’t actually published in those years. I’ll place a link to this post on the sidebar of the blog for easy reference. I’m taking names and titles for 2018 now, so please feel free to send them in. Finally, don’t forget the Self-Published Translation post: If you have a book to add, please add it in a comment on that page.

All that’s left now is to say happy reading and happy July! Here’s the list:

Alexievich, Svetlana: Boys in Zinc, translated by Andrew Bromfield; Penguin Modern Classics, March 2017.

Alexievich, Svetlana: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; Random House, July 2017.

Aristov, Vladimir: What We Saw from This Mountain, translated by Julia Trubikhina-Kunina, Betsy Hulick, Gerald Janecek; Ugly Duckling Presse, spring 2017.

Aygi, Gennady: Time of Gratitude, translated by Peter France; New Directions, December 2017.

Babel, Isaac: The Essential Fictions, translated by Val Vinokur and illustrated by Yefim Ladyzhensky; Northwestern University Press, November 2017.

Batyushkov, Konstantin: Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry, translated and presented by Peter France; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, November 2017.

Bochkareva, Maria: Maria’s War: A Soldier’s Autobiography, translated by Isaac Don Levine; Russian Life, January 2017.

Buksha, Ksenia: The Freedom Factory, translated by Anne Fisher; Phoneme Media, 2017. This novel won the 2014 National Bestseller Award.

Chekhov, Anton: The Plays, translated by Hugh Aplin; Alma Classics, October 2017.

Chekhov, Anton: The Beauties: Essential Stories, translated by Nicolas Slater Pasternak; Pushkin Press, October 2017.

Chizhova, Elena: Zinnober’s Poppets (I believe this is Крошки Цахес), translated by Carol Ermakova; Glagoslav, July 2017.

Chudakova, Marietta: Mikhail Bulgakov: The Life and Times, translated by Huw Davies; Glagoslav, September 2017.

Dashkova, Polina: Madness Treads Lightly, translated by Marian Schwartz; Amazon Crossing, Septemberish 2017.

Desombre, Daria: The Sin Collector, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Amazon Crossing, October 2017.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, translated by Kyril Zinovieff; Alma Classics, spring 2017.

Formakov, Arsenii: Gulag Letters, translated and introduced by Emily D. Johnson; Yale University Press, June 2017.

Ganieva, Alisa: Bride and Groom, translated by Carol Apollonio; Deep Vellum, September 2017. (previous post)

Gelasimov, Andrei: Into the Thickening Fog, translated by Marian Schwartz; Amazon Crossing, January 2017.

Gogol, Nikolai: Dead Souls, translated by Donald Rayfield; Alma Classics, July 20, 2017.

Goralik, Linor: Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview, edited by Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokur; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, November 2017.

Griboyedov, Alexander: Woe from Wit/Горе от ума, translated by Sir Bernard Pares; Russian Life, June 2017. A bilingual edition of the classic.

Grishkovets, Evgeni: The Hemingway Game, translated by Steven Volynets; Glagoslav, 2017, second half.

Iliazd: Rapture, translated by Thomas J. Kitson; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, May 2017.

Kapitsa, Sergei: Paradoxes of Growth, translated by Inna Tsys and edited by Scott D. Moss and Huw Davies; Glagoslav, March 2017.
Kharms, Daniil: Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, translated by Alex Cigale; Northwestern University Press, February 2017.

Kholin, Igor: Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems, translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, and illustrated by Ripley Whiteside; Ugly Duckling Presse, spring 2017.

Khvoshchinskaya, Sofia: City Folk and Country Folk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, August 2017.

Krylov, Ivan: The Fables of Ivan Krylov, translated by Stephen Pimenoff; Dedalus Books, February 2017.

Kucherena, Anatoly: Time of the Octopus, translated by John Farndon with Akbota Sultanbekova and Olga Nakston; Glagoslav, January 2017.

Kurchatkin, Anatoly: Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait; Glagoslav, February 2017.

Kuznetsov, Sergey: The Round Dance of Water, translated by Valeriya Yermishova; Dalkey Archive Press, September 2017.

Lebedev, Sergei: The Year of the Comet, translated by Antonina W. Bouis; New Vessel Press, February 2017.

Lomasko, Victoria: Other Russias, translated by Thomas Campbell; Penguin (UK) and n+1 (US), 2017.

Maisky, Ivan: The Complete Maisky Diaries: Volumes 1-3, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, translated by Tatiana Sorokina and Oliver Ready; Yale University Press, 2017.

Petrosyan, Mariam: The Gray House (Дом в котором in Russian), translated by Yuri Machkasov; Amazon Crossing, April 2017.

Petrushevskaya, Ludmilla: The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia, translated and introduced by Anna Summers; Penguin, February 2017.

Remizov, Alexei: Sisters of the Cross, translated by Roger Keys and Brian Murphy; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, December 2017.

Sharov, Vladimir: The Rehearsals, translated by Oliver Ready; Dedalus Ltd, apparently September 2017.

Shklovsky, Viktor: The Hamburg Score, translated by Shushan Avagyan; Dalkey Archive Press, February 2017.

Shklovsky, Viktor: Life of a Bishop’s Assistant, translated by Valeriya Yermishova; Dalkey Archive Press, July 2017.

Smoliarova, Tatiana: Three Metaphors for Life: Derzhavin’s Late Poetry, translated by Ronald Meyer and Nancy Workman; Academic Studies Press, September 2017.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: March 1917: The Red Wheel: Node III, Book 1, translated by Marian Schwartz, Notre Dame Press; fall 2017. More of The Red Wheel will be rolling out…

Sonkin, Victor: Here Was Rome: Modern Walks in the Ancient City, translated by Victor Sonkin; Skyscraper Publications, August 2017.

Tsvetaeva, Marina: Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922, edited and translated by Jamey Gambrell; New York Review Books, October 2017.

Various: The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky; New York Review Books, March 14, 2017.

Various: Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, translated, edited, introduced, and with notes by Bryan Karetnyk; Penguin Classics, July 2017.

Vinogradova, Lyuba: Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941-1945), translated Arch Tait; MacLehose Press, April 2017.

Yarov, Sergey: Leningrad 1941-42: Morality in a City Under Siege, translated by Arch Tait; Polity Press, 2017.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny: We, translated by Hugh Aplin; Alma Classics, November 2017.

Bonus Book that doesn’t fit the theme exactly: Robert Chandler’s A Short Life of Pushkin, from (appropriately enough) Pushkin Press, released this summer. (Robert also loves Edith Sollohub’s The Russian Countess, for which he wrote a foreward…)

And because I just can’t help myself, here’s another Bonus Book that doesn’t fit the theme: Croatian War Nocturnal by Spomenka Štimec and translated from the Esperanto, yes, the Esperanto, by Sebastian Schulman; Phoneme Media, August 15, 2017.

Up Next: Well! Now that my unexpected but much-needed post-deadline hiatus has concluded, I’ll finally blog about two novels set in Russia but written in English… and then some books in Russian. Mikhail Gigolashvili’s novel about Ivan the Terrible is very good but reads slowly, very slowly, for me because it’s so intense. At least I want to read it, though: it feels like I’ve abandoned more books than usual this spring and summer.

Disclaimers: The usual because I know so many of those involved with these books. And many of my own translations are supported by grants from the Institute of Translation and the Prokhorov Fund’s Transcript Program, plus I’m working on a book for the Russian Library. I’m grateful to all those organizations for their support of authors, publishers, translators, and, of course, Russian literature itself.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The 2017 Yasnaya Polyana Award Longlist

Two things stood out for me in jury members’ comments about this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist, which was announced a week or two ago. As someone who loves sorting through longlists, I particularly loved jury chair Vladimir Tolstoy’s remark that some readers look to shortlists for reading ideas but professional readers also pay attention to longlists. I wish more people did: I suspect there are lots of very good books that hit longlists for major prizes but never land on shortlists, let alone win prizes. (Hmm, that sounds like something interesting to look into...) I was also pleased that juror Pavel Basinsky noted how much he enjoys discovering new writers through literary juries. That’s half the fun of award lists—both long and short—for me, too.

There are 30 books on this year’s Yasnaya Polyana longlist so I won’t list them all, but here are a few:

One book I’ve already read and one that I’m reading:
  • Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Муравьиный царь (The Ant King) (previous post) was my favorite weird book last year so I’m rooting for it to make the YP shortlist. I didn’t enjoy Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi enough to finish but am looking forward to his first novel, Ташкентский роман (Tashkent Novel), which is now on my shelf, too, thanks to the Russian Prize.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret/Mysterious Year), already a Big Book finalist and winner of the 2017 Russian Prize, is a colorful, funny, and peculiar novel about what happens when Ivan the Terrible runs away from his job. It’s so dense and demanding that I can only read a little at a time. I may be reading it all summer!

Several books already on the shelf that were longlisted for other prizes:
  • Pavel Krusanov’s Железный пар (Iron Steam) is about twin brothers.
  • Aleksandr Melikhov’s Свидание с Квазимодо (A Meeting [not sure what kind] with Quasimodo) is about a criminal psychologist.
  • Dmitrii Novikov’s Голомяное пламя (hmm, the first word is an adjectival form of “голомя,” a Pomor word that means open sea or distant sea… so maybe something like Flame Out at Sea or Flame Over the Open Sea…) has interested me for a long time since Novikov is from Petrozavodsk and writes about the Russian north.
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot) isn’t on the shelf yet but will be soon since it’s a Big Book finalist; it was also a NatsBest finalist.
  • Aleksei Slapovskii’s Неизвестность (Uncertainty is what I’m suspecting…) is also a Big Book finalist and will soon be on the shelf.

There are other authors on the list that I’ve already read and enjoyed, not to mention several books that interest me after reading reviews, but—keeping Basinsky’s comment in mind—I’ll finish off with two books that sound interesting in some way or other and were written by authors I’d never heard of until now:
  • Olga Pokrovskaya’s Полцарства (Half the Kingdom, I guess?) sounds like it’s about regular people with regular problems and emotions… and it sounds positive since the word “светлая” is used to describe it so, who knows, I might even go out on a limb for “sunny”!
  • Ganna Shevchenko’s Шахтерская глубокая (Miners’ Deep [Mine], I guess… the title words are the name of a mine) is told (at least at the beginning, which is all I looked at) by a female accountant at the mine. The voice seems engaging and I love a good first-person narrative, so this looks especially promising.

Disclaimers: The usual and having translated two Yasnaya Polyana Award jury members and was a co-participant with Basinsky at events during Russian Literature Week 2017 festivities in New York last month.

Up Next: Futurism. Gigolashvili’s The [Pick Your Adjective] Year, though that might take a very long time. And probably something else that takes a slight bit less focus than the Gigolashvili book. I haven’t decided what…

Monday, June 5, 2017

Lizok’s Summer 2017 Reading Plan: Ten Big Book Award Finalists

The Big Book Award announced its shortlist last Monday, making this post yet another better-late-than-never production. (It’s deadline time again, what can I say?!) As far as commentary goes, there are a few books I was surprised and sorry missed the list, among them Vladimir Sorokin’s Manaraga (previous post), Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (something like Look at Him, perhaps?), and Anna Kozlova’s F20, which just won the National Bestseller Award. As always, Klarisa Pul’son’s guess list and pre-announcement analysis (here) is informative and fun. Beyond that, for now—since I haven’t yet read any of the finalists, the Starobinets book, or the Kozlova book, or much of anything else from the longlist—I’ll just add that I’m very sorry and disappointed not to see any (any!) female authors on the list, particularly after Kozlova won the NatsBest (where 3/7 of the finalists were women, the other two being Figl’-Migl’ and Elena Dolgopyat, neither of whom made the Big Book longlist) over the weekend. 

In any case, here’s the list of ten finalists for 2017, in the (random?) order they’re listed on the Big Book site, with descriptions. Winners will be announced in early winter and I’ll be posting about my reading before then. There’s a preponderance of long books on the list: at least five are 700 pages or longer. I love a good (good!) long book so am hoping for the best. Although I don’t know much about the books on the list, I’ve already read books by six of these authors.

  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret/Mysterious Year). I already started this book about the strange time when Ivan the Terrible left both the throne and Moscow for a while... the novel’s cover description mentions psychodrama with an element of phantasmagoria and that seems about right. Gigolashvili’s language is, as always, colorful and playful, this time with lots of medieval touches. This is a long (700+ pages) book with small print and it takes a fair bit of concentration so my guess is I’ll be reading it for a while yet. This book already won the 2017 Russian Prize.  
  • Aleksei Sal’nikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него(Severe tricky title alert! The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu might capture things; this is literally something like “The Petrovs in and around the flu” though I could be completely missing the point since I haven’t read the book.). A novel about a contemporary and allegedly unusual family (aren’t they all?) set in Yekaterinburg. Based on the online version, it’s safe to say that people do have the flu. I don’t like the flu but this one looks interesting.
  • Lev Danilkins Ленин. Пантократор солнечных пылинок (Lenin. Pantocrator of Dust Motes, I believe, since Lenin refers to dust motes in Aristotles De Anima). A biography of V.I. Lenin, Ulyanov. A heavyweight checking in at 784 pages. 
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot). The Patriot, about businessman Sergei Znaev, already made the 2017 NatsBest shortlist. Rubanov’s literary agency, BGS, has a full description. (Only 512 pages!)
  • Aleksei Slapovsky’s Неизвестность (Uncertainty? I’m uncertain because I haven’t read the book, though this seems to fit descriptions…). A book covering 1917-2017—the cover says “роман века,” “novel of the/a century”—told through diaries, poetry, and other, well, stuff; Klarisa says “datafiction” is already a term for describing this genre… (Also 512 pages!)
  • Shamil Idiatullin’s Город Брежнев (Brezhnev City, at least sort of: Naberezhnye Chelny was called “Brezhnev” during 1982-1988). Childhood in the late Soviet period… I keep reading good things about this book and am looking forward to it very much. Another 700 pages or so…
  • Viktor Pelevin’s Лампа Мафусаила, или Крайняя битва чекистов с масонами (Methuselah’s Lamp, or The Last Battle of the Chekists and Masons). Could there have been a Big Book shortlist without a Pelevin book? I’m still waiting for a Pelevin novel to enjoy from start to finish, so who knows, maybe this is my year. In any case, another book covering multiple centuries; I’m betting the title sums it all up well. (A meager 416 pages!)
  • Sergei Samsonov’s Соколиный рубеж(The Falcon’s Line/Position? But perhaps not: thanks to a reader review on Ozon.ru, it sounds like this refers to limits and extremes…). Another 700-page novel: this one’s about World War 2 air battles… This book—in manuscript form and under the pseudonym Gorshkovozov—won Samsonov a 2015 Debut Prize for full-length prose.  
  • Sergei Shargunov’s Катаев: «Погоня за вечной весной» (Kataev: “The Pursuit of Eternal Spring”). About author Valentin Kataev. (704 pages!)

Disclaimers: I’m a member of the Big Book Award’s jury, the Literary Academy.

Up Next: The Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Futurism, finally. I think…

Sunday, June 4, 2017

NatsBest goes to Kozlova for F20

Anna Kozlova won the 2017 National Bestseller award yesterday for her novel F20, about a teenager with schizophrenia. I wasn’t surprised that F20 won: Kozlova’s book collected the most points in the NatsBest’s first round of voting. That’s not to say the ceremony wasn’t suspenseful… F20 was tied 2-2 with Aleksandr Brener’s Жития убиенных художников (Life Stories [as in lives, in the context of “lives of saints”] of Killed Artists), leaving jury chair Konstantin Ernst as the tie breaker. He cast his vote for F20. Two other books received votes: Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland) and Andrei Filimonov’s Головастик и святые (known in English as Manikin and the Saints).

If you’d like to watch, the award ceremony is archived on YouTube here

For more: A Fontanka article by Elena Kuznetsova.

Up Next: The Big Book shortlist, which I’ll be setting up to post tomorrow/Monday. The Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Then more books… including futurism.

Disclaimers: NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental is the author of Masha Regina, which I translated.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Instructions for Everything: Gadol’s Director. Instructions for Liberation

Alexandr Gadols Режиссёр: инструкция освобождения (Director. Instructions for Liberation; please note that this title and transliteration of the author’s name are on the book’s cover) turned out to be an interestingly pleasant surprise from start to finish. I was surprised when a colleague from the Institute of Translation whod been deputized as a book courier handed the book to me in New York earlier this month and even more surprised at the novel’s unexpected layers and twists, and how they affected me. Director is about prison life but that’s only part of the story. The book is also about how the narrator, who’s identified only by the nickname “Director” (though he has no films, shows, or plays to his name, only the real-life scenarios he cooks up...), attempts to stay out of prison; getting knifed can be a temporary help. It’s about metaphysical things, too. This is a book where an English-language translation of the Bible is smoked. In prison. In any case, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at how much I enjoyed Director: Gadol won third place for the book in the 2016 Russian Prize competition.

There are so many angles I could take on Director—this may be one of my biggest surprises since I don’t often seem to end up enjoying books that feel so open to varying interpretations—that I think I’ll first pick up on a small point raised by critic Aleksandr Chantsev here, on Rara Avis, and move on from there. The title of Chantsev’s review, “Антропология тюрьмы, свободы и страны” (“The Anthropology of Prison, Freedom, and a Country”) sums up a lot about the book: I’m not sure which social science I’d choose to describe Director but anthropology is as good as any, with psychology and sociology viable candidates, too. My favorite motif in the book is film noir, which pops up fairly frequently and contributes to the anthropological portrait. Gadol is even quoted on the back of the book saying that when he was in prison he imagined himself as a film hero, something that made his life a little easier and kept him from losing his mind. Beyond that, Gadol, who has also worked as a director for Kiev TV stations, notes that he particularly enjoys American noir from the 1940s and 1950s. Director includes references to Crime and Punishment, which feels pretty noirish in its own early way and there are trips to a bar called Capone, which hosts a “Chicago in the Thirties” gangster party. Just for fun, I’ll add that there’s a mention of Dawn of the Dead, too.

Director’s prison scenes are interesting—looking at phenomena like pecking orders and how people can be good as individuals but jerks when together are only a couple of the social sciency aspects that attract—but my favorite layer of the book is Director’s time spent outside, when he’s waiting to learn his fate. After visiting a scammy and seemingly very young psychoanalyst (!) on a hill (the novel takes place in a city on seven hills, which could be Moscow, though I think it’s Kiev, and not just because Gadol is from Ukraine and Chantsev guesses Kiev, too… this just doesn’t feel like a Moscow book to me…), Director decides he wants to be a scammy psychoanalyst, too, so he rents himself an office, buys himself a diploma, and procures himself a gun, a Colt 45 like Dirty Harry’s. Of course.

There’s an absurd and noirish feel to all that that goes nicely with a passage I marked later on, where light comes through venetian blinds, creating lines on characters’ faces: Gadol even writes that this is like a shot from a noir film. (Personal experience strengthened this for me, too: I remembered analyzing light on criminals’ faces in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing during film class…) A bit later, at the Capone with the scammy and seemingly young psychoanalyst and some of his buddies, Director describes the sounds, smells, and people as being cinematic: things remind of black-and-white film noir and a conversation about the search for truth ensues, along with mentions of Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather theme song, too.

With its brief chapters, jumping timelines, and multiple storylines, Director is the sort of book that’s particularly ripe for varying interpretations. I noted lots of existential moments (“a mini existential crisis” among them) but my dominant prism for reading became truth-and-noir, with that preference for non-prison scenes, though the prison scenes often echoed the outside and addressed the nature of truth. There seem to be gurus on hills everywhere in Director—there’s a fair bit of religion involved, not just the afore-mentioned Bible but also Buddhism—though not all are genuine (or are they?) and there’s hardly anyone in the novel who uses a name that’s printed on, say, a government-issued form of identification. (And what’s in a name, anyway?) There’s also talk of being behind bars that are formed by everyday things, like letters and words on the pages of books or stars in the sky. Meaning that prison is everywhere you turn. A cover blurb from Alexander Snegirev praises Gadol’s concentrated prose, which he says is almost poetry, and I have to agree. Gadol’s language, which often includes prison/criminal slang and sometimes involves long lists, creates situations and imagery that simultaneously feel abstract and vividly concrete. Reading the book was a sensory experience: climbing those hills nearly made me sweat, there was lots of second-hand smoke to inhale, and watching people who’re watching people on public transportation (in a scene that felt almost like flash fiction) made me feel like a voyeur, too.

A story almost long enough to consider a novella follows Director in the volume and “Живучий гад” (hmm, I’ll go literal and call it “A Tenacious Snake”…), which is very linear—this time I felt almost like I was watching a train wreck, right up close—is far easier to describe than Director. The story tells of Sasha, who begins a life of dubious entrepreneurship at the age of twelve by buying fishing lures and reselling them at a premium after gluing “foreign letters” on the packages. Sasha becomes the first black marketeer in his school, eventually moving on to (spoiler alert!) running a videosalon (these sites for makeshift, unauthorized movie showings were a real phenomenon), comfy pay toilets, synthesizing LSD, and, eventually (but of course!), a run for politics. The story made me laugh, too: Sasha’s lessons in life from American movies like Good Fellas and Used Cars (which, imagine that, is apparently helpful for teaching a kid how to buy a used car) are sometimes hilarious, though the anthropology of (sometimes petty) criminal behavior struck me most. “A Tenacious Snake” feels like a diabolical appendix to Director, what with its myriad mentions of movies plus lots of false and farcical identities—Sasha even enlists an adult to act as the nonexistent Georgian head of the videosalon—that make the combination of the story and the novel feel like a small volume of case studies of what goes wrong or (perhaps more accurately) what goes false in ways that make children want to become criminals. Unlike one of the characters in Director, I don’t think the theme music from The Godfather is to blame.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Director from Русская премия (Russian Prize), thank you very, very much! I’ve long felt remiss in not following the Russian Prize—and, really, literature written in Russian by writers living outside Russia—more closely so am especially grateful for a reminder of the importance of the award and the authors it recognizes. There will be more to come! I also want to add that Director is from publisher Eksmo’s .RU imprint, which focuses on contemporary Russian-language books by authors living outside Russia.

Up Next: Award news: Big Book finalists, National Bestseller winner, and Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Then more books…