Sunday, May 21, 2017

Food for Thought: Sorokin’s Manaraga

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/37/Saranpaul_-_view_over_river.jpg/640px-Saranpaul_-_view_over_river.jpg
Manaraga, in Russia's Komi Republic
I think the only way to write about Vladimir Sorokin’s latest novel, Manaraga is to imagine myself in the book for a minute. So: if, I, a woman, were somehow miraculously admitted into the exclusive ranks of book’n’grill chefs in some near-but-future century that I’m too lazy to calculate, what would be the most appropriate meal to grill using Manaraga (preferably a signed first edition) as a (burning, yes, burning) log?

My answer would be mixed grill. Preferably ordered by a book club whose members have finicky taste. And not to worry if they don’t read the book: there’s not much old-fashioned reading in Manaraga. What is important is what is to be grilled: I’d hope for a barely compatible combination of shrimp, sausage, and some kind of nicely marinated chicken pieces. The chicken would be skewered since lots of things get skewered in Manaraga. The chicken would be the meal’s highlight because so often marinade is where the real flavor is. Humor is the marinade in Manaraga, at least for me.

I’ll start with the chicken because I love marinated chicken (especially this simple and ridiculously versatile recipe) and I loved the humor in Manaraga, too. As is already obvious, half the fun of Manaraga is that it’s about books. About the sad fate of books in an age where electronic reading has taken hold and only money is printed. This is a time when book’n’grill chefs use illicitly procured books to grill food in private homes—this is known as reading—and fulfill clients’ specific requests. Sorokin doesn’t spare much of anyone, skewering everything from self-publishing to poor paper quality in the Yeltsin-era (oh, do I have evidence of this on the Bookshelf!) for an edition of Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur. Books used as logs fit with aspects of clients’ celebrations or lives, too, so a reading with M. Ageyev’s Novel [or “romance”] with Cocaine includes white powder and a reading for the cast of a Master and Margarita adaptation includes the novel plus, of course, jokes about manuscripts burning (or not). And there’s also the insight that Chekhov stories are ideal for cooking shrimp… I had many an audible laugh with Manaraga. Here’s another one: reading Bakhtin is a good moneymaker. Fortunately, Sorokin didn’t let me down on an obvious laugh: I’d wondered how far in I’d need to go for a mention of Fahrenheit 451: since it just had to be there, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything at all to say it’s about half-way through. It involves steak.

Part of why Sorokin’s humor works so well in Manaraga is that he creates a homey voice for his narrator, Geza, a 33-year-old man who travels the world to read Russian classics. I should add that he’s guided and protected by electronic “fleas” implanted in his head. Book’n’grill is an underground venture so it’s dangerous and the fleas—this is one of the futuristic aspects of the novel—assess safety and provide background information on what Geza sees. Woe be to anyone whose fleas are removed and becomes naked and helpless. (This is yet another reason I wouldn’t want a smart phone...)

Shrimp is risky grill food (even in this delicious rendition) because it can dry out so quickly, which means there are times when it feels like Sorokin’s using one too many of his familiar tropes. We get details of a man’s journeys and work, and that somehow reminds of The Blizzard and Day of the Oprichnik, even more so because holograms, a giant narco-goldfish, and mentions of past wars come into play. Many of those familiar details didn’t matter much to me because I was so taken by the book-related layer. Even so, the weakest element of Manaraga is related to those tropes: though most of the individual readings are fun enough to read, the slow-burn thread (skewer?) that Sorokin chooses to hold those episodes together—a threat to the book’n’grill chefs’ Kitchen conglomerate, caused by mass-produced molecular copies of one certain individual old copy of Nabokov’s Ada—and create the semblance of a novel feels more like a plot device to create the semblance of a novel than an organic development. This seemed more like a linkage and development problem than anything else: the conclusion (cue the action genre!) made perfect sense to me, though because of accounts of the individual readings that preceded it.

In the end, Manaraga feels rather like sausage: something in it might be a little artificial, clichéd, and/or guilt-inducing but—like this Maine-made kielbasa that’s so delicious that even I happily ate some cold one night—it’s very tasty fun and pretty filling, too, since there’s plenty of food for thought about the present and the future of books. Electronic or print? Bespoke or mass-produced? For the mind or the market? Are books like franchises? And what is reading, anyway? And how should it affect you? As with mixed grill, there’s something for just about anyone in Manaraga and—given the humor and my familiarity with Sorokin’s menu of literary ingredients—the book feels almost like comfort food. I wonder, of course, if that’s a good thing… and I ask myself if that’s because I’ve immersed myself further into Sorokin’s world or because his writing doesn’t have the edge it used to? Or both?

I won’t offer my answer to all those questions but I realize now that I forgot to add marinated mushroom burgers to my mixed grill menu: they’re light but nutritious and delicious, too.

Yes, I’m hungry.

Edit, three days later. I should add that my original post wasn’t clear enough about the nutritional aspects of Manaraga: comfort food or not, what sticks with me most about the novel is the broader sociocultural implication of Sorokin’s vision of literature, books, and, perhaps most frightening of all, the huge influence of fleas. Again, it’s Geza’s homey storytelling voice that underpins the novel’s success for me: Geza makes this world feel as if it’s (almost?) normal.
For more fun details (and some mild spoilers) about Manaraga, visit literary agent Galina Dursthoff’s site, here.

Up next: I hadn’t been planning to write about Manaraga so soon so the backlog grows! First up will be also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition. And lots of award news, too: the Big Book short list and NatsBest winner. Plus Afanasy Mamedov’s novella set in Baku that I mentioned in so many previous posts. And some futurist-related reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist and James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems.

Photo credit: By ugraland [1] from Moscow, Russia - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2183152

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Yet More Award Info: Another Better-Late-Than-Never Post

Better-late-than-never posts seem to have become a bit of a habit here at the Bookshelf. Then again, this does seem to be award season: posts about the Big Book shortlist, Yasnaya Polyana longlist, and NatsBest winner will all be on the way relatively soon, too. In a more timely manner. I hope.

For now, though, a few bits of old news.

I’m often remiss in writing about the annual Pushkin House Book Prize since it covers only nonfiction, but this year’s shortlist includes a few titles that sound particularly interesting even to a fiction freak like me. One, Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, is a translation by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg, with an introduction by Edyth C. Haber. Another is Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, which I’ve been interested in since reading several enthusiastic reviews when it was released. (I suspect the title helps, too, since I thought Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead was so good…) And then there’s Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918, which sounds especially vivid. The other titles—Rosalind P. Blakesley’s The Russian Canvas, Anne Garrels’s Putin Country, and Simon Morrison’s Bolshoi Confidential—help create a nicely rounded shortlist. Pushkin House’s page with the shortlist includes links to helpful individual pages about each book so I’ll leave the details to them. The winner will be announced on June 7.

And then there’s the Russian Prize, the Русская Премия—for writers who live outside Russia and write in Russian—which was awarded in late April, just when I was so caught up in finishing a translation that I completely missed the news. Oops. Mikhail Gigolashvili won the long fiction award for his Тайный год (The Secret Year, I guess…), which should arrive at my doorstep any day now. Second and third prizes went to, respectively, Shirin Shafieva for Сальса и Веретено (Salsa and Vereteno) and Vladimir Lidskii for Сказки нашей крови. Метароман (hmm, maybe The Fairytales of/in Our Blood. A Metanovel, or even “tall tales,” depending on the book…). Short fiction awards went to Tatiana Dagovich, Leia Liubomirskaia, and the team of Andrei Zhvalevskii and Evgenia Pasternak, and poetry awards were made to Gennadii Rusakov, Sergei Solovyov, and Oleg Iuriev. All titles, along with countries of residence and brief descriptions, are available on the information-packed Год литературы site, here, or on the Russian Prize site, here.

Finally, two brief items on translations. I’m very excited that my translation of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, published by Oneworld, is a finalist for this year’s Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, which will announce results on June 3. Contemporary Russian fiction was represented on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award prose shortlist, too, by Oblivion (Предел забвения in Russian), written by Sergei Lebedev, translated by Antonina Bouis, and published by New Vessel Press. Since this one’s all over, I’ll mention that the BTBA winner for prose was Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and published by Open Letter Books. The poetry winner was Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, and published by New Directions.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: There’s a bit of a backlog around here, particularly with more award posts coming… There’s also the Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in previous posts. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which was perfect reading for (and about) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived not long ago. There’s also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition… I just finished it but it got under my skin enough that I may write about it first.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The 2017 Big Book Longlist: Another Better-Late-Than-Never Production

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, more than once: I love literary award longlists. And I particularly love comparing literary awards longlists because it seems there are lots of good books that make longlists but not shortlists…

Anyway. This year’s Big Book longlist has 34 titles, of which two are in manuscript form, hence unpublished at the time they were submitted. (I always find this a bit mysterious…) As for methodology: I’ll first list eight books I’m already interested in then move on to a few titles by unfamiliar authors.

  • Andrei Volos’s Должник (The Debtor) is book three of a tetralogy. I’ve never read Volos, despite numerous recommendations over the years… Maybe the tetralogy is the place to start.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret Year, though I suspect this is “secret” with a good dose of mysteriousness…) is set during the time of Ivan the Terrible.
  • Dmitri Danilov’s Сидеть и смотреть (Sit and Look/Watch), which I read part of—and enjoyed but wanted to read in print form—when it first came out in journal form is very Danilov. (Much of it was written on a phone.)
  • Shamil Idiatullin’s Город Брежнев (Brezhnev City, at least sort of: Naberezhnye Chelny was called “Brezhnev” during 1982-1988) is a brick of a book (700 pages) about the 1980s. Recommended highly by critic Galina Yuzefovich.
  • Anna Kozlova’s F20 is apparently a novel about a teenager with schizophrenia. F20 is already on the 2017 NatsBest shortlist; it won the most points in the first round.
  • Dmitry 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…), which I’ve seen recommended several times already this year, is a book I have a special interest in because Novikov is from Petrozavodsk and writes about the Russian north.
  • Vladimir Sorokin’s Манарага (Manaraga) apparently involves cooking food over fires of burning books. Yuzefovich recommended this title, too. Hmm, I didn’t know Manaraga’s a mountain…
  • Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Maybe Look at Him? I’m not sure…) is about motherhood and the loss of a child before birth.

Though there are plenty of books by authors I’ve already read—Yuri Buida, Viktor Pelevin, Andrei Rubanov (The Patriot is already a NatsBest shortlister), Dina Rubina, and Aleksei Slapovskii—I’ll pick books by three authors I’d never heard of:

  • Olga Breininger’s В Советском Союзе не было аддерола (There Was No Adderal in the Soviet Union) certainly has a memorable title. Breininger’s originally from Kazakhstan but lives in Boston. The novel starts off mentioning a conference of Slavists… the book was longlisted for the Debut Prize in 2015. Confession: I’ve liked academic conference novels since reading David Lodge during my grad school years. (I wonder if this is connected to the fact that I dropped out of grad school?)
  • Viktoria Lebedeva’s Без труб и барабанов (Without Trumpets and Drums) sounds like it’s a family history/saga, set from the middle of the twentieth century until the present.
  • Andrei Tavrov’s Клуб Элвиса Пресли (The Elvis Presley Club) does not seem to take place near Graceland. Darn. But it looks like there’s Sochi.

Disclaimers: The usual; I’m a member of the Big Book jury, also known as the Literary Academy. The shortlist will be along in late May.

Up next: The Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in previous posts. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which is perfect reading for (and about) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived last week. I’ll be reading other translations in preparation a roundtable during Russian Literature Week in early May, hosted by Read Russia in New York.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

NatsBest Shortlist 2017: Lizok’s Better-Late-Than-Never Edition

The National Bestseller Award announced a seven-book shortlist on April 14—oh, the shame that I’m this late! This is a wonderful and rare case where I’m interested in nearly all the books on a shortlist. Here’s the list, including the number of points awarded by the “big” jury, plus links to jury members’ reviews, which are easier to find than ever on the new NatsBest site. They are a fantastic resource. NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s comments about the list are here. The winner will be announced on June 3.

  • Anna Kozlova’s F20 (10 points) is apparently a novel about a teenage girl with mental illness. Jury reviews are here.
  • Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland) (9 points) is a collection of short stories by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed reading in the past. I haven’t read this collection yet—I don’t even own it—but have to admit that I’m already rooting for Dolgopyat because her past work has impressed me so much. Jury reviews are here.
  • Andrei Filimonov’s Головастик и святые (known in English as Manikin and the Saints) (7 points) is represented by the Elkost literary agency so I’ll leave the description to them; it’s here. Jury reviews are here.
  • Figl’-Migl’s Эта страна (This Country) (6 points) is a book I want to know nothing about: it’s enough for me to know that it concerns political prisoners from the early Soviet period. I’ve been waiting for it and F-M, whom I still haven’t read, won the NatsBest a few years ago. Despite mixed reviews—running the full gamut, something that I often take as a positive since it generally means the book gets under the reader’s skin—since the NatsBest longlist came out, I’m still very interested. Jury reviews are here.
  • Aleksandr Brener’s Жития убиенных художников (Life Stories [as in lives, in the context of “lives of saints”] of Killed Artists) (6 points) is, according to the publisher, Hylaea, a book composed of brief stories/chapters about Brener’s experiences in various places around the world, looking at people, meetings, attachments, impressions… Jury reviews are here.
  • Sergei Beliakov’s Тень Мазепы (Mazepa’s Shadow) (6 points) is nonfiction about Ukrainian history during the Gogol epoch. Jury reviews are here.
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot) (6 points) sounds, based on the BGS literary agency’s description (here), like a very Rubanovian Rubanov novel. Rubanov’s very good at showing contemporary Russian life. Jury reviews are here.

Disclaimers: The usual plus I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s novel Masha Regina.

Up Next: Big Book longlist post, also late! And then, hmm, the Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in my last post. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which is perfect reading for (and about since it’s set in Moscow around the time of the revolution) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in a book entitled “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived last week. I’ll be reading other translations to prepare for a roundtable during Russian Literature Week in early May, hosted by Read Russia in New York.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Favorite Russian Writers from A to Я: Х Marks the Spot

It’s been years, literally years, since I’ve written an alphabet post: I left off with the titanic letter T in July 2014. And then I struggled with the letter У/U, just as I had struggled with O earlier, because I simply didn’t have enough favorite authors to compile a post. I decided to skip a few letters after one of you asked me last week when there would be another alphabet post: since I’d already skipped O (and something else, too, I think…), I decided not to bother with У/U or Ф/F, either, at least for the time being. Hence we’ve arrived at Х, the letter often represented in English as Kh.

And what a productive letter Х/Kh is! My first Kh author to mention is Mikhail Kheraskov, an eighteenth-century writer I studied in grad school. It wasn’t Kheraskov’s Rossiad—a classic epic poem that was/is evidently in school curricula—that drew me, though, but his plays, which Wikipedia rightfully says have been “neglected by posterity.” Kheraskov’s Гонимыя (in the old orthography; I called it The Persecuted in English) was not only the reason I learned how to use a microfiche machine: it was also a good lesson about the literary transition from sentimentalism to classicism. And literary influences. Kheraskov contributed to my love of sentimentalism—The Persecuted’s title pages call it a “teary drama”—and it was his work that got me interested in analyzing literary genres. That’s more than enough to make him a favorite.

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Margarita Khemlin, who died a very young death in autumn 2015, is the first writer whose work I loved so much I had to translate it. I’ve enjoyed her long and short stories, and her novels, too, and am very happy I’ll be starting work on her Klotsvog (previous post), for the Russian Library at Columbia University Press, in June. I’ve always admired Margarita’s ability to write about the damage of World War 2 and Jewish heritage with humor, grit, and grace. And I can’t wait to create an English-language voice for Maya, the narrator (and title character) of Klotsvog, my favorite of Margarita’s novels. (Favorite that I’ve read at this writing, anyway: a new one was recently published posthumously.) I missed her terribly when I was in Moscow last fall and think about her constantly: her trust in me years ago means a lot to me as a person and as a translator. And I always loved her sense of humor as a person. (Her husband and sister both took to calling me Becky Thatcher, too.) Melanie Moore translated The Investigator (Дознаватель), which earned excellent reviews and was published by Glagoslav.

Khlebnikov's grave, Moscow, November 2012, my fuzzy photo
And then there are three that I always enjoy reading but don’t have such personal feelings for… There’s the wonderful Daniil Kharms, whom I took a liking to in the early 2000s after reading Старуха (The Old Woman): Kharms is always good for some absurdity: I bought a compact 1991 edition with prose, poetry, drama, letters, and art when I lived in Moscow and enjoy picking it up every now and then for a little weirdness. Kharms has grown on me over the years, like a cucumber. There’s lots of Kharms available in translation, including Matvei Yankelevich’s Today I Wrote Nothing, from Overlook Press (2009), and Alex Cigale’s Russian Absurd, from Northwestern University Press (2017). That “three” includes two poets: Vladimir Khodasevich and Velimir Khlebnikov, neither of whom I have read methodically or even broadly but both of whom I love reading when references or mentions pop up. I’ve always had a thing for futurism so enjoy Khlebnikov for that. And, of course, for his “Incantation by Laughter,” which is mentioned in this fun post (and my comments) about Khlebnikov on Wuthering Expectations. I’ve read less of Khodasevich but he keeps turning up, both at translator conferences (represented by his translators, of course!) and in quotations in fiction. Since I’m utterly inept at writing about poetry, I’ll leave this one to Wuthering Expectations, too, since there’s this post about Selected Poems, which contains Peter Daniels’s beautiful translations. Here’s a sample of Peter’s work, from theguardian.com’s “Poem of the Week” feature. Peter’s collection, by the way, was published by Angel Classics in the UK and Overlook in the US.

Х is an unusual letter for me because nearly all the Kh authors on my shelf are favorites. The only writer left unread is Boris Khazanov: I have a collection that a friend borrowed and enjoyed very much.

Up Next: An Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku. Kir Bulychev’s Поселок (known in English as Those Who Survive): I read very little science fiction (I’ve failed on nearly every attempt at reading the Strugatsky Brothers) but enjoy it when I find something that suits my taste. This Bulychev book feels like a perfect fit for a very frenetic time. I’ll also be doing some preparatory reading before participating in Russian Literature Week events in early May. And I’m still plugging away with Crime and Punishment, though may switch to Oliver Ready’s translation of the novel, which I enjoy reading much more than Dostoevsky’s original, which I’ve been rereading as a remedial measure and as a prelude to reading Robert Belknap’s Plots, which discusses C&P as well as King Lear

Disclaimers: The usual, including knowing the translators mentioned in this post.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Two Short Novels by Valery Zalotukha

One of the books I brought back from Moscow last September is a big, thick collection of short stories and not-very-long novels by Valery Zalotukha, whose gigundo novel Свечка (The Candle) was a Big Book Award runner-up among jury and reader’s choice voters in 2015. Zalotukha’s publisher gave me the collection and recommended I read the novella Мусульманин (The Muslim), which served as the basis for a 1995 film of the same name, directed by Vladimir Khotinenko. The movie won a special jury prize at the Montréal World Film Festival that year and won a (Russian) Nika Award for best screenplay in 1996. Zalotukha, who passed away in 2015, was a well-known screenwriter: he also wrote Makarov, which Khotinenko also directed, and which also won awards.

The Muslim is brief—around 80 pages—and written very clearly. It’s dated 1994 and feels almost like an early example of чернуха, that dark-dark-dark realism I’ve written about so many times; it is village-based. Zalotukha tells the story of Kolya, who has returned to his hometown from the war in Afghanistan, where he was MIA. Lots changed during those years: Kolya’s father committed suicide, his bully of a brother (Fedya) was released from prison, and Kolya himself has converted to Islam and uses the name Abdula.

You can read Dennis Grunes’s excellent detailed summary (with spoilers!) of the film version of The Muslim, which appears to be very close to the novella, so I won’t waste time outlining the plot, particularly since the simple use of the word чернуха above tells you that many things can and will go wrong after Kolya’s return. What made the novella particularly interesting for me was the 1990s atmosphere that Zalotukha creates: villagers sniff American dollars, collective farms are changing, one character speaks in advertising slogans, and there’s a mention of the ubiquitous Mexican soap opera The Rich Cry, Too, which sucked in millions of Russian viewers. There’s also a bit of a carnival feel when lots of dollars get loose…

At the core of the story are cultural differences and otherness. Kolya stands out from his family and townspeople not just because of his new name: he also refuses to take part in certain rituals, like drinking vodka at his father’s grave or accepting free, essentially stolen, feed grain. There’s a particularly sharp contrast between Kolya and Fedya because Kolya has a strong work ethic and Fedya, though initially loyal to his brother, is prone to heavy drinking and violence. The Muslim features another other, a mysterious visitor, an outsider who comes to town. Though The Muslim’s ending felt a bit more obvious—and perhaps more sudden—than I might have hoped for, the novella kept me thoroughly engaged, both because of my interest in the 1990s and because I always enjoy reading about cultural clashes that include figures like the all too typical Fedya.

Zalotukha’s Последний коммунист (The Last Communist), which is dated 1999 and was a Russian Booker Prize finalist in 2000, was less satisfying. The Last Communist is a family drama of sorts, too, and it also tells of a son’s return. This return feels less monumental: Ilya Pechenkin returns from school in Switzerland to his wealthy family in southern Russia. The 1990s are still in full force here, too, and it feels like Papa Pechenkin, who made his fortune in agriculture, owns the town. (I wonder if it’s a coincidence that his initials work out to VIP if they’re shown as first name, patronymic, surname?) It’s Ilya who wants to be the last communist and foment some sort of revolution, and Zalotukha works in plenty of family conflict—there are father-son relations, of course, as well as VIP’s extra-marital activity with a modest schoolteacher—as well as lots of reminders of the many sociopolitical and sociocultural aspects of generation gaps. Although Ilya makes friends with some peculiar characters who inspire Zalotukha to include martial arts poses at the market and a conversation about why people love McDonald’s (no swearing or barfing there, to which I would add clean and calm, pluses in the 1990s), it’s VIP, with his preference for movies over reality and his utter cluelessness about everything and everyone around him that caught me most.

I could stick lots of labels on The Last Communist—absurd, farcical, tragicomic, among them—and there are little gusts of classics blowing through the book, too, what with references to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (my reread, which is slow but steady, is paying off already!) and Ostrovksy’s How the Steel Was Tempered. Despite wonderfully absurd situations in The Last Communist that lend the novel a humor that feels peculiarly poignant—all the more so for having met people who were a bit like VIP—the plot was a bit too madcap and even confused at times for my taste, making me appreciate the clarity, brevity, and, yes, even the obviousness of The Muslim even more. I always admire stories and novels that are straightforward but difficult to put down, usually for reasons I can’t quite explain. What’s strangest about reading Zalotukha (this includes The Candle, too) is that I find myself wanting to read more even when his storytelling isn’t as sharp as it might be: I suspect that’s both because his writing is generally very energetic, which I appreciate, plus it almost always feels as if the Russia that fascinates Zalotukha is the same Russia that fascinates me.

Disclaimers: Thank you to publisher Vremya for my copy of this Zalotukha collection! It’s a huge book so there’s still plenty more to read. Including Makarov.

Up Next: A short novel set in Baku by Afanasy Mamedov.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Feeling Happily Sentimental about Postmodernism: Sergey Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope

Sergey Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (Kaleidoscope) is yet another novel that’s nearly impossible to describe: it’s 850 pages divided into more than 30 loosely-but-closely linked chapters that cover 1885-2013 and involve several dozen characters in many countries. Summarizing by saying that Kaleidoscope is about everything doesn’t say much at all. Irina Prokhorova, founder of the NOSE Award, focused more by calling the novel “новейший сентиментализм,” which might be as good a description as any: in a sense, Kaleidoscope is, to translate Prokhorova’s words literally, “the newest/latest sentimentalism,” what with its accounts of various sorts of political, social, economic, and personal upheaval that involve huge shares of pain and joy. A kaleidoscope, after all, involves reflectors and light to create its patterns.

The joy of Kaleidoscope for a reader like me lies in its structure and composition. As an example, Kuznetsov links a noirish chapter-story (echoes of Dashiel Hammett…) set in 1928 to chapters set in Shanghai during the 1930s. Later in the book and in history, there’s a New York master of the universe type (shades of Tom Wolfe…) who resurfaces in Silicon (oops, no silent “e,” Lizok!) Valley and truly does end up master of his own universe; Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters also get mentions. One generation may die but their children pop up later.

Materials—often pieces of glass—shift inside a toy kaleidoscope, creating changing pictures when the cylinders are twisted; in Kaleidoscope, Kuznetsov twists the cylinder of his novel, shifting plot lines, temporal and geographical settings, and characters to show new aspects of life and history. As I jotted down during my reading, there’s a lot to love here because the shards always come together to form a new picture, even when the world seems to be falling apart morally, politically, and/or socially. I think of the book’s subtitle—расходные материалы—as something like “shifting materials” or even “recurring materials” here, though the Russian term often refers to things that need to be replaced, like batteries, toner cartridges, or razor blades.

Part of the novel’s success lies in Kuznetsov’s recurring use of the kaleidoscope metaphor, presenting a child with a kaleidoscope as a holiday gift in the book’s first chapter and then reinforcing the theme—and teaching the reader to read the book—by noting, for example, shards of history as well a kaleidoscope-like key chain in a Silicon Valley scene where someone notes that, “In a/the postmodern world we learn to find harmony not in order but in chaos.” The chapter-stories in Kaleidoscope don’t look random or chaotic for long even though they differ greatly in terms of form and stylistics.

Another one of my notes says that Kaleidoscope “demands/prefers active reader participation to make connections and consider influences.” I should add that I found that aspect of the reading especially fun: Kuznetsov provides apparatus for the book that includes a list of recurring characters and the chapters in which they appear, plus a list of “literature” that includes books (fiction and nonfiction) and films that provided inspiration in various forms (Kuznetsov mentions phrases and observations). This is a wonderfully mixed lot with dozens of titles, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and of course Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I say “of course” about the Pynchon not because I’ve read it (I haven’t) and found shards in Kaleidoscope (which of course I couldn’t) but because more than one Russian reader recommended Kaleidoscope to me last fall in Moscow, calling it “Pynchon Lite.” Though the Pynchon element may be lost on me, those other titles I listed, plus many others—including Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, which I read a large chunk of years ago before I forgot where I was (I should have read linearly…) and, “of course” again, Ian Fleming’s Bond bookswere not.

Reflected glimmers of those books—along with slivers of history, including real-life characters—are part of what underpin the postmodernist feel of Kaleidoscope and the kaleidoscope of our lives. (Speaking of real, true history, I read up on things like the 1910 Great Flood of Paris and Shanghai in the 1930s and even fractals while reading Kaleidoscope…) Bits of those materials shift and recur, forming patterns involving world wars, revolutions of all sorts, utopian ideas, and, of course, love and partings that result from the afore-mentioned wars and revolutions, as well as emigration.

In the end, it’s hard to express or explain why I loved Kaleidoscope so much and didn’t want it to end—I realized in my last days of reading that I’d been waiting until late in the evening to pick it up. I was subconsciously rationing my last pages, postponing the inevitable end. (The end of history is here, too…) The connectedness of Kaleidoscope’s characters and historical threads is somehow comforting, as are the hope and creativity and love that arise during times of upheaval. Beyond that, the book is solidly composed and Kuznetsov finds very admirable balances when drawing his characters and settings: within the limited pages of each chapter-story, he offers just the right amount of detail to create vivid and simulacrumesque atmosphere and characters, link themes and characters in chapters, and address questions about what it means to be a human being living in the twentieth (plus or minus…) century. (I borrowed “simulacrums” from Max Nemtsov’s review of the novel, which also involves a disco ball…) To come back to Irina Prokhorova’s use of “sentimentalism” in describing Kaleidoscope, I can only say that the novel made me feel sentimental about a lot of things. On one level, I realized how much I love postmodern literature that’s this colorful, and beautifully organized and structured, and—corny though it may sound—able to make me feel so sentimental, so emotional, and so curious, about the human experience itself. That, I suppose, is what I meant when I wrote that Kaleidoscope is about everything.

Disclaimers: The usual, including having met Kuznetsov in person (at least once, but maybe twice?) and on the Internet.

Up Next: The Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist plus at least two novel(la)s by Valery Zalotukha.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

History, Languages, and All Manner of Other Things: A Few Thoughts About Paul Goldberg’s The Yid

Paul Goldberg’s novel The Yid offers up an unusual angle on Stalin’s Russia: Goldberg begins the book on February 24, 1953, sending a Black Maria with attendant staff to arrest one Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, “an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater.” Everything goes topsy-turvy in Levinson’s apartment—and, really, in the rest of the novel, just as things have gone topsy-turvy in the USSR over the last several decades—thanks to Levinson’s skill with sharp objects. And so. What does a non-state actor (sorry for the pun!) do with dead bodies killed unofficially? And how might a non-state actor (meaning someone like Levinson) and his buddies try to combat Stalin? This second question is a new variation on the age-old burning question of “What is to be done?”

The fun of The Yid, which looks at the horrors of fascism, racism, and the Soviet past, isn’t just its element of something akin to an almost gleeful alternative history, it’s in its telling. Even more so for a reader like me who so loves to have a writer guide her through a book. The Yid may be Goldberg’s debut novel—he said in an appearance at Print Bookstore in Portland a couple weeks ago that he’s written other, unpublished, fiction—but he makes masterful use of language and literary devices as he establishes an absurd world that blends historical truth (and even historical characters, something I think very, very few writers do successfully) with a fictional world that’s extraordinarily playful and theatrical, drawing, among other things on Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Three early examples. Goldberg begins with a trilingual epigraph from Shmuel Halkin’s Bar-Kokhba (Moscow State Jewish Theater, 1938), very shortly thereafter calls the first part of his book “Act I,” and defines certain terms in his second paragraph:
A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.
By page nine, he’s already blending Yiddish, Russian, and English in ways that made me happy as both a reader and a translator. Just scroll down to “Dos bist du?” in this excerpt on the Jewish Book Council site for a sample. The words are playing, the characters are playing, and Goldberg is again showing his readers how to read his book. This time, there’s a crude rhyme that involves two languages; Goldberg even offers an explicit explanation. (Side note: I think Goldberg makes wonderful use of Russian mat, obscenities, in The Yid.) There’s an obvious obviousness and staginess throughout the book that sometimes extends to (oh, here’s a random find, flipping the pages) a bit of a soliloquy from Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, presented in both transliterated Russian and Anthony Wood’s English translation. Late in the book there’s also a mention of how historian Edvard Radzinsky covers “the events at Stalin’s dacha in the early morning of March 1, 1953.” All of that, plus, of course, Goldberg’s abundant humor, remind the reader not to take this world too literally… all while taking its tragicomedy, absurdity, and historical mayhem and reality very seriously. I’ve been a sucker for that paradox for years.

I enjoyed The Yid very much as a reader but I think I enjoyed it even more as a translator because I love observing how writers handle dialogue with multiple languages. I particularly appreciated Goldberg’s combination of translations, transliterations, and original language because, yes, dear readers, he shows that these things can work together. There was even a practical element for me, in noting the words Goldberg uses to refer to unfortunate features of the Stalin era, things that are in Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which I’m translating: cattle cars, guards, transit prisons, deportees… There are, of course, plenty of books containing those words, but something about Goldberg’s lively combination of English, Russian, and Yiddish really won me over, even more so because he also blends genres, temporal settings (I didn’t even get to that!), cultures (or that!), and so much damn sad history into around 300 pages. I’m looking forward to his next novel.

For more:

Disclaimers: I received a copy of The Yid from the publisher, Picador; thank you to James Meader for sending a copy of the book, which he also edited, as Goldberg’s acknowledgements note. With all its languages and references, I’m sure The Yid presented a slew of editing challenges. Kudos to Meader and the rest of the editorial team for their work.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I loved for being a book about nearly everything that matters in this world, then Valery Zalotukha’s The Last Communist, which I’m enjoying very much because (about half-way in, anyway) it’s succeeding at the opposite feat and feels almost like chamber theater about post-Soviet Russia, focusing on a wealthy family in a small city… I’m not sure about conquering Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi: though I enjoyed some individual passages, the novel lacks, hmm, narrative drive and 100 pages felt like several hundred more. That means that reading six more hundreds of pages feels nigh on impossible right now. Though far, far stranger things have happened.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Here I Am to Brighten Your Day! Darkest Russian Literature

I felt a little jolt last week when I read this tweet from The New York Times Book Review:


I knew—just knew—that “darkest novel” in George Saunders’s reading life had to be Russian. And I was right: the book is Russian. But I was wrong about the title: the book he mentions is Lev Tolstoy’s Resurrection, about which he says, “Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” might be the darkest novel I’ve ever read — basically, a slow descent down from privilege and power into the terror and cruelty that comes of poverty and ritual oppression. (I know, it sounds bleak but. . . .)”

I’d say that sums up Resurrection pretty well; I, too, remember it as dark for those same reasons. I read Resurrection in my years before the blog and recommended it in a “forgotten classics” workshop, noting some stylistic differences and common themes with both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, though now, years later, I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what those were…

Saunders hits [sic? is this how it works?] a trifecta for Russian literature in this week’s “By the Book” for the Book Review: he also mentions the narrator of Isaac Babel’s story “In the Basement” as a favorite character and notes that he’s planning to read Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys; the book’s 1992 translation, by Julia and Robin Whitby, was recently reissued by Norton.

On a related note, Babel receives more attention in this interview for Forward, in which Aviya Kushner asks Peter Orner about, as she puts it in her introduction, “how to read in the age of Donald Trump, why Isaac Babel matters so much, and other questions about the connection between literature and survival.” This is about my hundredth reminder that I need to (re)read more Babel, something I’ve been remiss about for, well, decades. Orner, by the way, specifically cites Walter Morrison’s translations of Babel.

But back to the darkest Russian novels ever written… Which novel did I think would be Saunders’s darkest? My second choice was good old F.M. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which gave me unthinkable nightmares after I read the murder scene at bedtime not so long ago. (Do not read that scene just before bed. Please.) Claustrophobia alone would be enough to qualify C&P as dark but that murder scene is brutal. My first guess, though, was Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovyov Family (here’s the New York Review Books page on Natalie Duddington’s translation, complete with blurbs), which I also recommended in that forgotten classics workshop. I didn’t mention claustrophobia in this summary for handouts, but I felt it, intensely, in this book, too. Here’s what I wrote:
Ouch! This is the ultimate book about dysfunctional families. I have to admit that I found it difficult to read at times, both because of obsolete language and the absolute horridness of the characters. But I’m glad that I stuck with this book that Dmitrii Mirskii, an historian of Russian literature, called “the gloomiest in all Russian literature,” particularly because S-Shch has such a knack for showing the way things really were. The rottenness of the gentry is stunning, and I found the ending almost unbearably depressing. Still, I recommend it.
Those books are pretty dark but I think my very darkest book ever would have to be Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs (previous post), which is chernukha—a Russian word for what I’ll just call pitch-black realism—to end all chernukha. It’s unbearably sad and I used “ouch” in that blog post, too. But I loved that book because it’s so suspenseful and so well-composed as it describes a failing family; I’m not surprised at how much praise I’ve heard for The Yeltyshevs from other Russian writers.

Another big contemporary favorite that’s very dark: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s The Devil’s Wheel (Чертово колесо in Russian), which examines heroin addiction and corrupt cops in Tbilisi. Gigolashvili includes lots of dark (of course) humor, plus action, making nearly 800 pages fly by as if they were 80. This book has stuck with me very well since I wrote about it in 2010.

I could add lots more gloomy books to the list but will stop there. Other dark suggestions will, of course, brighten the coming days!

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve translated a bit of Senchin, including excerpts of The Yeltyshevs. Aviya Kushner is a beloved friend and colleague.

Up Next: A combo post about Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, which will include thoughts about the book and Goldberg’s upcoming appearance at a local bookstore. Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I finally finished the other night after slowing down to a glacial reading pace: I think my subconscious just didn’t want me to finish. I suspect part of what I love so much about Kaleidoscope is its combination of dark and light. Eventually: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi¸ which friends brought back from Moscow for me: they both read and enjoyed it before passing it along. This is another brick of a book (700-plus pages) so there may be more potpourri posts in Lizok’s future…

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The 2017 National Bestseller Award Longlist

This year’s National Bestseller Award longlist was announced last week and, as always, it’s fun to look through the list and see who nominated what. This year, 56 nominators nominated a total of 54 books. (I think I counted correctly… this isn’t so difficult, but I do have occasional trouble with these matters…) With so many books, it would be tough to list even half of them, so I’ll pick out a few that sound particularly interesting (to me) and add some titles by authors I’m not familiar with, focusing on books available in printed book form. The last category—which I could rephrase as “discovering new authors”—is, by the way, something Vadim Levental, the prize’s secretary, mentions in his commentary about the list: essentially, NatsBest wants to help readers navigate a sea of books. As always with NatsBest, I’m very much looking forward to reading reviews of the longlisted books. I’ve always enjoyed them because they’re so varied, individual, and informative. Best of all, NatsBest’s new site makes it far easier to find reviews quickly. The shortlist will be announced on April 14; the award ceremony will be held on June 3.

Two books were nominated twice:
  • 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…), which I’ve seen recommended several times already this year, is a book I have a special interest in because Novikov is from Petrozavodsk and writes about the Russian north. Nominated by Natalia Babintseva and Andrei Rudalev.
  • Aleksandr Brener’s Жития убиенных художников (Life Stories [as in lives, in the context of “lives of saints”] of Slain Artists) was nominated by Lyubov Belyatskaya and Ilya Danishevsky. According to the publisher, Hylaea, the book is composed of brief stories/chapters about Brener’s experiences in various places around the world, looking at people, meetings, attachments, impressions… A review by Aleksandr Chantsev makes it sound far more promising!

Books I’m already looking forward to:
  • Anna Babiashkina’s Прежде чем сдохнуть (Before I Croak) has already been translated, by Muireann Maguire for Glas, so it’s easy to leave the description to reviewers Phoebe Taplin and Michael Orthofer. The Russian book is on my shelf; the English version is on my computer, thanks to the author. Nominated by Anna Kozlova.
  • Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland) is a collection of short stories by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed reading in the past; the book was nominated by editor Yulia Kachalkina of Ripol Klassik, which has other books on the longlist. As Levental’s commentary notes, Kachalkina and Elena Shubina—whose imprint for AST have won many awards in recent years and who nominated Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot) for the NatsBest,—both have many nominees on the NatsBest longlist this year.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret Year, though I suspect this is “secret” with a good dose of mysteriousness…) is set during the time of Ivan the Terrible and was nominated by Evgenii Vodolazkin. I’ve enjoyed two of Gigolashvili’s previous books so am looking forward to this one.
  • Figl’-Migl’s Эта страна (This Country), nominated by Pavel Krusanov, is a book I want to know nothing about: it’s enough for me to know that it concerns political prisoners from the early Soviet period. I’ve been waiting for it! F-M won the NatsBest a few years ago.

I could add another five to ten more titles that I’m already interested in for various and sundry reasons—many are by authors I’ve read before and enjoyed, like Eltang, Ivanov, and Remizov—but will just skip to a few authors who are completely new to me:
  • Lyubov Mul’menko’s book, nominated by Konstantin Shavlovsky, was easy to pick because of its title—Веселые истории о панике (Cheery Stories about Panic)—and though the two current reader reviews on Ozon.ru aren’t exactly ecstatic, they mention downsides like postmodernism and feeling they have nothing in common with Mul’menko’s view of life. Those are factors I don’t usually consider negatives.
  • Vladimir Sotnikov’s Улыбка Эммы (Emma’s Smile) was nominated by Maksim Amelin, who sees the novel as a potential intellectual (he also uses the word “existential) bestseller: it’s about a father and son, and covers aspects of Russian history from the 1920s through the 1980s, and is set in several Former Soviet Republics.
  • Moshe Shanin’s Места не столь населенные (hmm, literally something like Places Not So Populated, but I have a strong hunch this title plays on the idiom “места не столь отдаленные,” for which my Lubenskaya phraseology dictionary offers up “(a place of) exile ,” though it can also be used as a term for prison. An article on this interesting idiom.) was nominated by critic Valeria Pustovaya, who calls the book post-village literature. Places contains stories set in the Arkhangel’sk region so there’s my Northern connection again: I’ve visited Arkhangelsk, though only the city, quite a few times.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Also: I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina and know some of the nominators for this year’s award. It’s been a busy weekend so my proofreading abilities are not very strong!

Up Next: Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, covering my thoughts on the book, which I recommend highly, and (if the weather forecast is wrong and there’s no snow…) his upcoming visit to Portland for the launch of book’s paperback edition. Also: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I’m still loving and still making good progress on… This is shaping up to be a year of very long books.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Some Rambling & Rather Random Thoughts on Snegirev’s Vera, a.k.a. Faith

The back cover of my edition of Alexander Snegirev’s Вера—the title is Vera in Russian, Faith in English—describes the book as a “роман-метафора,” literally a “novel-metaphor.” Vera, which won the 2015 Russian Booker Prize, (when, yes, I really, truly shouted “Snegirev” after I read he’d won…), is a novel that feels both painfully real and a novel whose metaphors feel painful as well as surreal, all served up in Snegirev’s story of a young woman’s life, faith, and attempts at love. I can’t say that Vera’s particularly pleasant to read—there are unsavory characters, dense language, and painful situations that have the real-but-unreal sense I mentioned above—but I have tremendous respect for Snegirev for being able to pull off the novel. I’ve read several of his books now—I thoroughly enjoyed both Petroleum Venus (previous post) and Vanity (previous post)—as well as a number of his stories of varying length. They were all good but Vera is a big step forward for him as a writer. Respect is often worth a lot more than likability.

I think the big reason Vera succeeds is that Snegirev teaches his reader how to read the novel from the very start, establishing tone and atmosphere. On page three, for example, theres this: “В начале самой страшной войны в истории человечества нелюбимого мужа Катерины призвали.” (“At the beginning of the most dreadful war in the history of mankind, Katerina’s unloved husband was called up [for military service].”) The characters are Vera’s grandparents and the war is World War 2. Vera is later referred to as “our heroine” and touches of conscious storytelling and myth set the book outside what I’d consider a real reality. Then there’s the matter of the language, language that some reviewers have compared to Andrei Platonov’s. Certainly the description of pizza (I’ll just offer a rough translation) as an Italian flour-based round/circle mounded with vegetables and meat, a concoction that’s quickly confirmed to be pizza, gives a sense of Snegirev’s play with language, language that’s so dense that I limited my readings to small chunks and (though I don’t remember her exact words) that one colleague, a native speaker of Russian, likened reading Vera to slogging through mud or mire. There is, however, a fair bit of dark humor.

But. But sometimes I like a good slog. And Snegirev’s novel-metaphor-slog creates a Vera who represents her time, a post-Soviet time in which Vera goes to political protests in search of men (one of my notes says “gussies self up for a protest”) and when baseball bats are used as weapons. What’s perhaps most important, though, is Vera’s body, and here I’m grateful to Sam Sacks’s “Fiction Chronicle” in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago for putting into words something I’d sensed in Vera but hadn’t quite formulated for myself, despite having noticed it in other novels, too. In discussing Han Kang’s Human Acts (translated by Deborah Smith), Sacks refers to fiction that “frames the human body as a site of political violence and protest,” something Han does to tremendous effect in The Vegetarian, too. (Side note: I haven’t read Human Acts but I have read The Vegetarian, a Booker International winner which, like Vera, I can’t say I enjoyed but had to finish and have to respect, both as a novel and for Smith’s translation. Also: I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, where the violence against the body isn’t exactly political but where the descriptions of pain, much of it self-inflicted, make me flinch and twinge and gasp. There’s a sense of concrete/abstract and harsh reality/metaphor there, too, that reminds me of Vera and The Vegetarian, despite how different the books seem.)

In Vera, Vera/Faith is attacked early on in a church and she attempts to defend (I’ll paraphrase again) what is usually called [her] honor. Things go from bad to worse over the years and Vera eventually loses, among other things, the ability to see all of herself in the mirror. It’s helpful here to remember that Vera isn’t just a novel, it’s a metaphor, too, particularly since Snegirev carries his metaphors further, to their logical conclusions, so there’s not much of Vera/Faith left at all, and Vera’s life is closely tied to both religion and faith, as well as changes in Russia during the post-Soviet era.

When I think back to reading Vera, which I finished some time ago, several things particularly stick with me: working my way through the dense language, details from Russian history and life that give Vera that “real” layer I mentioned at the start, and, more than anything else, Vera’s physical and psychological pain, which felt both real (that word again!) and metaphorical, as well as integrally and intensely related to Snegirev’s language and picture of Russia. I hadn’t read all of Vera when Snegirev won the Booker—I read about 15-20 pages, electronically, before deciding I needed to read Vera on paper—but now I feel all the happier that I shouted his name when he won. Not all good books are pleasant or cozy or easy to describe, but I have tremendous respect (that word again, too) for complex books that work thanks to consistent poetics. In the end, I find that respect a lot more pleasant than an easy, cozy book, particularly when it’s such a pleasure to watch Snegirev’s writing develop.

Also: I was sad to learn yesterday that actor John Hurt died. Among his many roles, Hurt played Raskolnikov in the BBC’s 1979 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, which I watched as a teenager, both at home and at school, where my English teacher showed it to my class when we were reading the novel. I still see Hurt’s face as Raskolnikov as I reread the book now.

Disclaimers: I’ve known Alexander Snegirev since we met at BookExpo America in 2012; he sent me an electronic edition of Vera.

Up Next: Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, covering my thoughts on the book, which I recommend highly, and his upcoming visit to Portland for the launch of book’s paperback edition. Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I’m still loving, more than 500 pages in…

Thursday, January 26, 2017

NOSE Award Goes to Boris Lego, a.k.a. Oleg Zobern

The NOSE Award was presented to Boris Lego on Tuesday for his Сумеречные рассказы (Dusky Stories or Twilight Stories), a book I described in previous posts as “a collection of nineteen Russian Gothic stories; a cover blurb calls it the scariest book of the year…” One NOSE juror apparently called the stories “trash” during (public) deliberations; that cheery note, and others, are here, on the Год литературы site.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story for those who read Russian literature in English translation is that Boris Lego is a pseudonym for Oleg Zobern, a name I’ve known since his story “Шестая дорожка Бреговича” (“Bregovich’s Sixth Journey” scroll down), appeared in the anthology Rasskazy, in Keith Gessen’s translation. I wrote about Rasskazy here.

The winner of reader voting was Igor Sakhnovsky’s Свобода по умолчанию, (Freedom by Default, I guess?), which was on the NOSE longlist but not the shortlist.

For more on the NOSE Award debates that determined the winner, check out Konstantin Milchin’s article for TASS. Apparently Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope was also a favorite with jurors and the expert panel. I’ve been enjoying Kaleidoscope very much and, given some of the weak finalists I read (or attempted to read) for the Big Book, I’m very surprised (I think even “shocked” would fit) Kaleidoscope didn’t make more shortlists. For more on the NOSE, here’s Elena Rybakova for Colta, in which she praises the shortlisted books by Kobrin, Kuznetsov, and Petrova but doesn’t even mention the winner. 

Up Next: Alexander Snegirev’s Vera.

Disclaimers: The usual plus much of my translation work is funded by grants, including from the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation's Transcript Program. The NOSE Award is also a program of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Weirdly Enjoyable Ant King

I’d intended to include Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Муравьиный царь (The Ant King) in my 2016 year-end post, listing it as the weirdest book I read last year… but then, in all my December 31, year-end hurry, well, I simply forgot. The Ant King is weird and wonderful in a fun, postmodern way—I love weird, it can carry me away—and it’s my favorite, so far, of all the books I brought back from Moscow last year, though I’m now thoroughly enjoying Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which is also slightly weird, not to mention, to various degrees, enjoyable, wonderful, and postmodern, depending on the individual chapter/story.

Part of what makes The Ant King peculiar is that the first part—a first-person narrative from an architect named Lena—kept me reading despite not being especially interesting or unusual. Lena tells of all sorts of family hell, flashing back to childhood, as well telling of present-day legal issues related to a building failure. Most important, she describes two family vacations, one in her childhood, the other in adulthood: both involve her adopted brother (intimations of incest) and the adult vacation includes (but of course!) a fling with a lifeguard in red shorts generally referred to as Mikhalych, a name that’s a slightly abbreviated patronymic. Maybe family vacations deserve more credit as plot elements.

The second half of the book is a third-person narrative that focuses much more on Mikhalych, who’s essentially the novel’s title character—ant kings, according to the text, which I’ll translate loosely here, fertilize the queen then die as unneeded organisms that have done their job—so it’s interesting that he’s known by his patronymic. Though the book’s ending doesn’t make Mikhalych’s fate clear, it is clear that he did his ant king biological duty: he, Lena, their baby, Lena’s teenage son, and Mikhalych’s treasured tank of tranquilizing fish all live together. I think the best part of the book is Mikhalych’s car journey through a blizzard—this wacked-out trip reminds me a bit of Vladimir Sorokin’s Blizzard (previous post) but Aflatuni’s journey feels far fresher to me—to bring his mother to a gerontozorii, isolated housing for geronty, people who become immortal (and dangerous) from rogue sleeping pills.

I suppose the juxtaposition of the generally realistic first narration with the rather odd surrealistic portion of the second narration is a big part of what makes The Ant King feel fresh to me, particularly because Aflatuni slathers on a thick layer of (oh, happiness!) storybook motifs that make me want to pull out my old notes on Vladimir Propp. Among them are Old King Cole, Baba Yaga, vampires, and Kolobok, a Gingerbread Man-like character who escapes his grandparents. Mikhalych’s geront mother even reinvents the Kolobok story during the car ride. That ride, by the way, brings us to locales off the cell phone grid (danger!), the River Beda (beda is trouble: the Oxford Russian Dictionary offers up “misfortune” and “calamity”), and, of course, the forest. Plus there are weird cops, the story of Mikhalych’s father being hit by lightning, and a million other things, including the gerontozorii itself, a monastery (there is a runaway, a twist on Kolobok, here), not to mention waxen-faced geronty who approach the car. The latter reminded me of Night of the Living Dead.

If you were to ask me what I think all this amounts to, I’m not quite sure how I’d answer… beyond fun reading that made me think about Propp, archetypes, dying, and society. That’s already a lot: this is yet another short-but-dense text of a book I’d love to read again (or, honestly, translate, to really get at all the connections…). What stands out most for me is how Aflatuni depicts family and, hmm, the structure and order of life and communities. Mikhalych, for example, analyzes his relationship with Lena as if they were ant colony members, Lena’s parents have marital difficulties, the sibling situation is uncomfortable at best, and then there’s the question of isolation at the gerontozorii and the monastery. That layer, together with all the Proppesque motifs, which of course often include family, sometimes feel updated (a term I don’t much like flashes here: “paradigm shift”) for the present day—combining the deep, dark forest as a place to disappear with going off the cell phone grid is just perfect, as is the immortality-giving drug that shows that better living does not always come through chemistry—lend the book’s characters a beautifully motley collection of traits, meanings, and motives from folk motifs, myth, and contemporary life. It’s a fitting way to examine what’s (sur)real and look at patterns. I’m now very much looking forward to Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi.

Since we mentioned ants: Shelley Fairweather-Vega’s translation of Hamid Ismailov’s story “The Dervish and the Mermaid” is in Image magazine, here. The connection: the story is from Ismailov’s (currently unpublished) novel Gaya, Queen of Ants, written in Uzbek. (Aflatuni is also from Uzbekistan.)

Another ant reference: I failed in my attempt to finish the Strugatsky Brothers’ Жук в муравейнике (Beetle in the Anthill). Though I enjoyed aspects of an investigator’s work tracking someone down—futuristic devices for translation and communication were kind of fun—the Strugatskys’ blend of corny humor and interplanetary travel, either of which sometimes work for me on its own, just didn’t hold me. This must be the fourth or fifth of their books I’ve tried; I read more than half. I’ll keep trying for another one or two…

Up Next: That roundup post I keep talking about, Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, Nose Award winners, and Plot Project bits on reading Crime and Punishment, which I may well include as add-ons to my regular posts. I’m also thinking about a Pushkin Project for later in the year: that would combine a reading of Andrei Sinyavsky’s Strolls with Pushkin—which I received from the Russian Library/Columbia University Press in Slava I. Yastremsky and Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy’s translation—with reading Pushkin works Sinyavsky mentions. It looks like the perfect starting point for some remedial work on my knowledge of Pushkin.