Wednesday, December 5, 2018

2018 Big Book Award Winners

The Big Book Award announced this year’s winners yesterday evening. The point totals from the jury’s voting were almost shockingly close. Here are some rather rambling (I’m a little distracted as I get ready for a Slavist convention!) thoughts on the winners.

The jury’s top prize (493 points) went to Maria Stepanova for Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory or Post-Memory). I seem to recall admitting to a certain trepidation about reading this book, largely thanks to hearing colleagues’ strong opinions: some loved it (the pedestal factor for books deemed “very important” can be difficult to surmount) but others hated it and claimed their eyes glazed over (I was also warned, as if to doom, that there was no plot… and I do love plot). I read a decent chunk and suppose it’s most accurate to say I fall somewhere in the middle, admiring the quality of the writing but not always fully appreciating the detail and density of what Stepanova writes. Despite that downside – and please note that I wrote “not always fully” – I found something very comforting about the pages that I read, both because of the very fact that Stepanova writes about memory, history, and family, things that are, indeed very important, and because she writes about them in a way that’s both elevated and very engaging. I ended up ranking it in my top clump of books. I plan to read more, very slowly – although sometimes the book feels almost addictively readable, it’s better to read in very small doses, to absorb, even try on, levels of meaning and significance. Post-Memory is painfully difficult to describe – I appreciated a tweet calling it a “meta-novel” – so I’ll leave you with Suhrkamp’s summary and a link to Cynthia Haven’s interview with Stepanova for Los Angeles Review of Books. As well as congratulations to Maria Stepanova and a note saying the book is on the way in English, published by Fitzcarraldo in the UK and New Directions in the US; I’ll see if I can find out who’s translating. Edit: Translator friend and colleague Ian Dreiblatt reports that Sasha Dugdale, who has translated some of Stepanova’s poetry, is translating.

In my biggest personal surprise of the ceremony, Alexander Arkhangelsky won second prize (486 points) for Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau or something of the sort), a novel set in 1980 Moscow (think: Olympics), a time that certainly interests me, though Arkhangelsky’s meandering, slow-burn narrative fizzled, failing to fire my imagination. (Sorry but it’s wood-burning season.) I’d like to say that’s despite Arkhangelsky’s vivid description of Moscow life at the time but I’m afraid it’s because of it: any sense of plot or forward motion gets lost in details, details, details and so much atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere (not to mention an irritating girlfriend who’s not irritating in a good “unlikeable character” way) that I stopped reading at about 75 percent (reading that far was thanks to inertia and misplaced optimism that the book would improve), after nearly drowning in familiar reminiscences that felt more unsatisfying than leftover champagne – structure (or even anti-structure, depending on the book) is as important to a novel as bubbles are to champagne. As so often happens, Konstantin Milchin’s review for Izvestia discusses many of the problems I found with the book.

Dmitry Bykov took third prize (473 points) with his Июнь (June), a novel composed of three very loosely connected stories (long, medium, and shorter). The first piece in June was, by far, my favorite reading on the entire Big Book list: it often felt jarring, disturbing, and uncomfortable to read this novella about war-era sexual misconduct (I’ve purposely chosen a broad term here) during our #Metoo times, particularly since I was reading June during the Kavanaugh hearings. Bykov’s primary characters felt almost universally unappealing to me and the love (?) triangle he draws feels both schematic and real but this long story moves along at a quick clip, with a fair bit of psychological suspense. Alas, I found the second piece dully typical and nothing grabbed me about the third, either, though I may attempt them again later, though that would already be a third or fourth try. No matter, part one of June was good enough reading to land this book in my top picks.

People’s choice voters awarded first prize to Dmitry Bykov’s June; no surprise there. Same for second prize going to Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мира (World Creation Recipes), an often humorous novel that describes family history and is so short that finishing it took minimal effort, even though the novel petered out toward the end and concluded with what felt more like vignettes about Soviet life than episodes in a novel. That may have been the point but, for me, anyway, it didn’t make for especially good fiction. Finally, Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (the one with the difficult title that’s probably not really Rainbow and Heather in English) won third prize. The Yermakov book started off okay enough (despite far too many mentions of Richard Ashcroft and The Verve), with a wedding photographer going on a reconnaissance trip to Smolensk. Mysterious things happen that send the reader back a couple centuries but I grew impatient in the past because of a mishmash of languages that felt rather overdone (so many footnotes!), history, and a lack of steady plot drive. Since this book is so long (736 pages), my “quickly” is relative – I skipped and skimmed my way through several hundred pages before giving up, despite understanding the book’s homey appeal for many readers.

This year’s Big Book finalists were the weakest bunch I’ve seen since I joined the Literary Academy (the award’s jury) several years ago. Is this a statement on the state of current fiction? Did some good books go unnominated? Answers: I’m not sure and I don’t know. Beyond Post-Memory and June, there was only one other book that I thought was at all prize-worthy: Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) is well-constructed, though, for my taste, it’s overly burdened with metaphors (some of which feel pretty forced) and detail, which means that I’ll confess to not finishing that one, either, despite appreciating Slavnikova’s discipline in creating such a consistent and well-imagined set of contemporary characters and circumstances, qualities that landed the book in my top clump.

In other news, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, an author well-known in English translation, won a special award for her contributions to literature. And I’m excited that Big Book began recognizing literary bloggers this year: Yevgenia Lisitsyna, who writes as @greenlampbooks on Telegram, is the winner. I’d love to read her work but oh my, am I ready for another platform?! I may just have to try.

Up Next: Eduard Verkin’s Sakhalin Island, Alisa Ganieva’s Offended Sensibilities, the ASEEES (Slavist!) conferenceconvention I’m about to go to (hence my addled post, hope it makes sense!), and who knows what else.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received Big Book finalist books in electronic form, though colleagues gave me a couple in hard copy at various times, for various reasons.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

English-Language Reading Roundup

This post has been incubating for months so I’ll get right to some quick notes on a few books I read in English in recent and not-so-recent months.

I’ll be honest: I requested a copy of Chekhov: Stories for Our Time from Restless Books because of the art, drawings by Matt McCann. Considering the book’s subtitle, I was also interested in Boris Fishman’s introduction, which does, indeed, address what I think of as the stereotypical Chekhov, plus the earthy Chekhov, with a bit of analysis of Chekhov’s writings (which Fishman confesses he didn’t always particularly love), as well as the relevance of Chekhov’s work in our current troubled times. Fishman wonders what Chekhov might have written about people living under certain political leaders. Ouch, ouch, and ouch.

Which is how I felt when I read the first clump of stories – “Stories of Love,” which included “The Darling,” “Anna on the Neck,” “About Love,” and “The Kiss,” plus “The House With the Mezzanine,” from the “Slow Fiction” section – and felt an old funny sadness and sad funniness all over again. Chekhov often makes me feel like I’m being pricked by a pin, like I’m deflating, but I somehow enjoyed that odd sensation when reading these translations by Constance Garnett, which felt just as decent for the purpose now as they did when I read them in college. (I also learned from this book that Garnett considered her mode of dress “unambitious;” perhaps this is an area where she and I truly are peers.) The book also contains a mouth-watering version of “The Siren,” specially translated for this volume by Restless Publisher Ilan Stevens and Alexander Gurvets: Stevens apparently doesn’t know Russian so Gurvets served as his “informant” and the resulting descriptions of hungry people and food, particularly lots of fish, including sterlet, carp in sour cream… In any case, this volume would make a lovely holiday gift, one I’d especially recommend for readers new to Chekhov, for the stories as well as McCann’s evocative illustrations and Fishman’s gentle, humorous guidance.

I probably would have bought Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball, translated by Jenny McPhee for New York Review Books, for a picture, too, if I hadn’t already known I wanted to read the book: I’ve always loved the painting on the cover, Yuri Pimenov’s New Moscow. Although The Kremlin Ball was never finished (something McPhee mentions in the first sentence of her foreword) I have to wonder if Malaparte’s account of Moscow in the late 1920s feels particularly honest and scathing – even voyeuristic in his gossipy accounts of famous personages, many from the “Marxist aristocracy” – because he never smoothed it. I’m not a big nonfiction reader but The Kremlin Ball (a title that tosses me back to Bulgakov’s account of “Satan’s Ball” in Master and Margarita every time I read or type it) sure kept me interested. How could I not want to read a book where Chapter 4 begins with “One Sunday morning I went to the flea market on Smolensky Boulevard with Bulgakov”? Or where there’s an account of requesting Lunacharsky’s permission (granted) to visit the apartment where Mayakovsky had committed suicide? McPhee’s translation read very nicely (I didn’t feel the anxiety about Russian material that I sometimes sense when I read translations about Russia that weren’t made from the Russian) and the book’s ten pages of endnotes contain some helpful background information.

Finally, there’s Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., which I finished late last winter but which still feels unusually vivid. This eight-hundred-page story of young Marina Makarova’s experiences during and after the October Revolution follows Marina through a storm of personal and public events, beginning with her comfortable upbringing and first love, and moving on to her second love and the collapse of both her country – she supports the revolution – and her relationship with her family. Fitch subjects Marina to ordeals that often correlate in some way to what’s happening around her – there’s violence that made me feel physical pain, for example, and she’s often in near-seclusion – but she also finds love and poetry. (Fitch’s acknowledgements note that translator Boris Dralyuk created “original translations for much of the Russian poetry that appears in this book.”) There’s lots more, including a snowy journey that felt cold, cold, cold and a semi-finale involving mysticism. I write “semi-finale” because I’m waiting for the sequel, which will apparently be out in July 2019.

Coming of age novels are pretty common but Fitch does a beautiful job pushing the genre’s boundaries – I meant what I said about feeling physical pain while reading – by serving up elements of high and low, poetry and the basest of behavior, vermin and astronomy, in a way that remind me of Marina Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus, which critic Viktor Toporov so memorably called «высокое чтиво» (which I translated as “high-class pulp” when I blogged about the Stepnova book here). “High-class pulp” is probably one of my favorite categories (if that’s possible to say) of fiction because I so enjoy reading about the contrasting elements of the earthy (which often includes disturbing scenes) and the cerebral that these books so often seem to present. I should also note that The Revolution of Marina M. is very much a St. Petersburg/Petrograd novel so I particularly appreciated it after spending a short week in Petersburg last November. I’ve gone a bit light on details because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who’d like to read it. For more: The Los Angeles Times ran a nice piece by Fitch last November that offers detail on the book and her travel to St. Petersburg for research.

I’ve also amassed a small pile of other books – all translations – that I’ve read in part and enjoyed very much in recent years but intend to read more of now that I have them in printed book form:
  • Horsemen of the Sands, by Leonid Yuzefovich, translated by Marian Schwartz, contains two novellas, Песчаные всадники (Horsemen of the Sands) and Гроза (The Storm), which I described in brief in an old post. I read a large chunk of Horsemen last year before Marian and I participated in a roundtable discussion during Russian Literature Week and am looking forward to reading the whole thing in print, in a lovely edition from Archipelago Books.
  • The Land of the Stone Flowers: A Fairy Guide to the Mythical Human Being (Книга, найденная в кувшинке), by Sveta Dorosheva, translated by Jane Bugaeva, is exactly what the title says it is and chapters like “What is a Human?” and “About Human Objects and Residences” are illustrated by Dorosheva’s stylish and humorous drawings, many of which are in full color. Jane told me that Dorosheva even changed a few illustrations to fit the English translation: the book’s text (from which I translated excerpts some years ago) contains lots of idioms that can’t be rendered literally. This one’s a lot of fun and I am very happy that Jane had a chance to translate it. From Chronicle Books.
  • Blue Birds and Red Horses, by Inna Kabysh, translated by Katherine E. Young, is a chapbook containing five poems. I’ve heard Katherine read many of her beautiful Kabysh translations at conferences and am glad some of them have made their way into this chapbook from Toad Press.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. I received two review copies: the Chekhov book from Restless Books and the Yuzefovich book from Archipelago Press. Jane sent me a copy of The Land of the Stone Flowers and Katherine sent me a copy of Blue Birds and Red Horses. I bought the Fitch and Malaparte books at a local bookstore. Thanks to Restless and Archipelago for the review copies as well as, respectively, bonus books that look great: David Albahari’s Checkpoint, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and Willem Frederik Hermans’s An Untouched House, translated by David Colmer. I’m wondering if the universe is telling me to resurrect my Other Bookshelf blog. I do think about that. It may happen.

Up next: Russian reading roundup, Big Book Award results and roundup, and Eduard Verkin’s Sakhalin Island, which confounds me in some ways because Verkin piles on plot line after plot line but yet the story is so absorbing and Verkin’s post-apocalyptic future is so imaginative that I can’t help but keep reading.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

2019 NOS(E) Award Finalists

The NOS(E) Award announced a ten-book short list on November 1 in Krasnoyarsk during public debates at the annual Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair. This year’s list seems a bit unusual. For one thing (I’ll go for the personal first!), it’s unusual that five of the books are already on my shelves. And then seven of them (!) were written by women. Beyond that, it’s particularly unusual that almost all these books sound interesting, stylistically and/or thematically, and that I’ve read and heard so many very complimentary comments about the majority of them. Winners will be announced in late January or early February 2019.

Here are the ten finalists in the order they’re listed on the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund site:

  • Denis Gorelov’s Родина слоников (Motherland of Little Elephants) is a nonfiction collection about Soviet cinema and the Soviet Union itself.
  • Yury Leiderman’s Моабитские хроники (Moabit Chronicles) is set in Moabit, the region of Berlin where Leiderman has his art studio.
  • Natalya Meshchaninova’s Рассказы (Stories) is a familiar title: it was a 2018 NatsBest nominee and is on one of critic Galina Yuzefovich’s lists of books she recommended at the September translator Kongress in Moscow. (a story)
  • Anna Nemzer’s Раунд (Round, probably like a “round” of talks or negotiations, though we’ll see) is described as an “optical novel” (different points of view?) that’s based on conversations. Publisher Elena Shubina especially recommended it to me; it’s on my shelf. Galina Yuzefovich added this one to her list of recommended books for a Frankfurt Book Fair presentation. (a sample)
  • Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory) is already a finalist for the Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana awards. I’ll be starting this one any day now. (An interview.) (A description.)
  • Ksenia Buksha’s Открывается внутрь (Opens In) also comes recommended by Galina Yuzefovich. Linked stories. (A story)
  • Yevgenia Nekrasova’s Калечина-Малечина (Kalechina-Malechina, referring to a game) is yet another Yuzefovich pick. Shubina suggested this one to me, too; it’s on my shelf. (A sample)
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Нас украли. История преступлений (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes) is set in the 1980s and 1990s; click on the English language title link for a full summary from Petrushevskaya’s literary agency. Also on my shelf.
  • Alla Gorbunova’s Вещи и ущи (hmm, this is kind of like Thing Things and Idea Things but even the author seems to prefer leaving that a mystery…) is a collection of stories. (One story) (Another story)
  • Viktor Pelevin’s iPhuck 10 is a nice way to finish the list, given that it’s the only title that needs no translation. No matter what it’s about.


Disclaimers: The usual. I know and/or collaborate with some of the people and entities mentioned in the post. I have received some of these books from various parties. The Mikhail Prokhorov Fund’s grant program – Transcript – for translations from the Russian helps pay my fees. And, thus, my bills.

Up Next: English-language reading roundup, a brief Russian-language reading roundup, and Big Book finalists, most of which I’m finding very (okay, extraordinarily!) difficult to read in full, thanks to structural problems, lack of editing, and mission drift. Those problems frequently pile up, creating amorphous, bloated texts. There are far too many books these days (not just written in Russian) that seem to require readers to edit the books in their heads as they attempt to read. It’s especially hard to stick with some of big books of the Big Book when I have so much on my shelves that I can’t wait to try, particularly the Nekrasova and Nemzer titles on this list!

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Olga Slavnikova Wins 2018 Yasnaya Polyana Award

The Yasnaya Polyana Award announced 2018 winners last week. Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) won the jury award and Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory or Post-Memory, as foreign rights holder Suhrkamp calls it) won the readers’ choice prize. Amos Oz and his Russian translator, Viktor Radutskii, won international literature honors for Иуда, which is known as Judas in Nicholas de Lange’s English translation.

Although I was surprised when Long Jump leaped its way to the three-book Yasnaya Polyana shortlist in September, my surprise faded quickly. Long Jump may not be calling out to me from the shelf, begging (Lisa! Lizok, read more of me!) for attention – it’s very densely populated with metaphors, something I find wearying in any language, and the book lacks the sparkle of Slavnikova’s 2017 (previous post) – but I will finish it. And that’s not just because rumor has it there’s a big plot twist on the way. I may not love Long Jump but the book has plenty of interesting elements, including some sharp social commentary. Vladislav Otroshenko, a Yasnaya Polyana juror, has mentioned in award announcements that Long Jump offers a lens for looking at the world and I certainly can’t argue with that. Vlad’s statements last week also assert that Slavnikova’s book (I’ll paraphrase) is the only [award candidate] written as a novel rather than as primitive self-expression and he adds that Slavnikova wrote a book that makes a statement that’s important for humankind. There’s something – a lot, really – to be said for that, and I can’t quibble with his statement, given that he’s looking at universality, something I also value very highly and found way too little of in the books on the YP longlist that I read or (far more frequently) attempted to read.

Even if I have misgivings about Long Jump, they feel purely technical and very overcomable, and they don’t prevent me from respecting Slavnikova’s achievement, which I can sense even without finishing the novel. I feel something more akin to trepidation about the prospect of reading Post-Memory, which I seem to either hear praised as a Very Important Book or dissed as a long and plotless snoozer. I’ve tried, though/therefore, to avoid reading detailed commentary about Post-Memory, lest I be swayed too far in either direction, particularly since I know good readers from both camps. No matter what I end up thinking of Post-Memory – which, of course I’m hoping to enjoy or at least appreciate, something that, yes, can occasionally be possible even with plotless snoozers – I need to get reading it and finishing Long Jump, too. For now, though, I’m feeling pretty entertained by Alexei Vinokurov’s People of the Black Dragon, a novel in stories that’s also a Big Book finalist.

Up Next: Reading roundups for English-language books and Big Book finalists.

Disclaimers: The usual, for the fact that I’ve translated books by two YP jury members and know Slavnikova a bit.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Blog Turns Eleven – Belated Happy Birthday to the Blog & Frankfurt Book Fair Notes

The blog turned eleven on Tuesday but I was still a bit out of focus after my trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair so decided to wait on festivities until the weekend. As I noted last year, those posts are less interesting to compile now anyway since there’s no point in looking at readership statistics these days. Even so, what’s most important about readership now is what’s always been most important about these posts: thanking you, the readers, for visiting, whether you do so occasionally or regularly. One of the biggest surprises of this blogging endeavor is that people continue visiting, reading, and (apparently) finding useful information on the blog, something that I think of as a sort of online filing cabinet, as, really, an extension of my brain, which is ever more stuffed with details I need to offload.

I’ve started considering my trip to Frankfurt as a sort of birthday present to my professional self since, after all, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now – translating Russian fiction – if it weren’t for the blog. (This is good justification to go back again next year, too.) So here, in lazy listicle form, are eleven things I particularly enjoyed about this year’s Frankfurt fair.
  • No Wifi at the Messe! I’ll start with something that brought joy. The book fair promises wifi but my devices this year and last failed to accept it. People with lots of Frankfurt experience told me this is an eternal problem and not a device-specific issue. (Some kind people from the Uzbek stand, for example, had a theory that the wifi doesn’t like Samsung, which is what I have.) Whatever the wifi issue, it was a treat not to have Internet access during the days. Next year I’ll just print out my calendar and leave the device in the safe.
  • Book Surprises. I never quite know what Russian-to-English translations I’ll find at book fairs. Of course I already have Oliver Ready’s translations of Vladimir Sharov, published by Dedalus Books, and was happy to see them, thanks to my friendships with both Sharov and Ready. And I knew of Tatyana Tolstaya’s Aetherial Worlds, published by Knopf, translated by Anya Migdal, and prominently displayed on The Wylie Agency’s stand. I was, thus, far curiouser about a few translations on the shelves at the Seagull Books stand: a clutch of books by Sergei Eisenstein, translated by multiple translators, The Prison Poems of Nikolai Bukharin, translated by George Shriver (!), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Time within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair. Seagull kindly gave me Eisenstein’s On the Detective Story, translated by Alan Upchurch, and just paging through has been interesting: there’s a cast of thousands, thanks to references to Lenin, Hitchcock, Pushkin, Gogol, and many more.
  • Other Books I Brought Home. I received books at various other stands, too. There’s Yulia Yakovleva’s The Raven’s Children, the first book in a trilogy (from Samokat) for kids that discusses the Stalin era; Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp has already translated the book into English for Penguin. I’m especially excited to give Eduard Verkin’s Sakhalin Island a try (I love a good post-apocalyptic novel), and was happy to find copies of Ksenia Buksha’s Opens In and Yuri Buida’s The Fifth Kingdom after hearing good things about them and forgetting to pick them up in Moscow. There’s also an English-language treat from Maclehose Press: Frank Wynne’s translation of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 1, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, still unavailable in the U.S.
  • Speaking About Books. I talked about books at the Russia stand, largely basing my comments on some lists – of authors I think have done particularly well in translation and books I consider big favorites – that I’d come up for a panel on contemporary novels with Maya Kucherskaya, Natalia Osipova, Maria Tsiruleva, and Galina Yuzefovich. The lists also came in handy for a talk with Anne Coldefy-Faucard about translation in France and the U.S., moderated by Evgeny Reznichenko. The lists certainly wouldn’t hold any surprises for regular blog readers (and even if you’re not, you can find a favorites list on the sidebar as well as year-end posts that mention reading highlights) so I’ll just say that I was happy to hear that Maria and I share a love for Dmitry Danilov’s Description of a City (previous post) and Horizontal Position (previous post).
  • An Award to Katharina Raabe. I don’t know a lot about what gets translated from Russian into German but I do know that Katharina Raabe, a literary editor at Suhrkamp, is a major force in bringing Russian and Eastern European literature to German-language readers. Knowing her dedication, I was very happy to see that the German Literary Translators’ Association recognized her work with the Übersetzerbarke (“Translators’ Barque”) award. When we talked a bit later about Suhrkamp’s list, she mentioned Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory), a Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana finalist (Suhrkamp’s description, including English translation information) that I’ll be reading soon. Raabe was Katja Petrowskaja’s editor for Vielleicht Esther, which I enjoyed in Shelley Frisch’s translation from the German, Maybe Esther (previous post).
  • The Serendipity Factor. The serendipity factor is part of what gives book fairs – and even travel to and from Frankfurt – their energy. Last year, a woman asked me in the subway if she was on the correct platform to catch a train to the airport; we were both at the right track, then figured out we were both Buchmesse attendees so talked the whole way to the airport… and ended up meeting this year, on purpose, to talk about books and translation. Beyond running into people I wasn’t expecting to see and being introduced to lots more people I was glad to meet, wandering the fair’s food section (which I hadn’t planned on doing) brought me a bag of nice Georgian tea as well as a stop at a Russian cookbook publisher’s stand – their painfully beautiful books drew me. (And then we talked about food translation issues!)
  • Georgia Stories. Georgia was the guest of honor at this year’s fair – the tagline was “Georgia – Made by Characters” – and about seventy authors were listed in the thick (nearly a hundred pages) catalogue for the Georgian program at the Georgian national stand and pavilion. The Georgian pavilion was a stylish and otherworldly place: dark, uncrowded, a bit hushed, and almost eerie, in part thanks to a mesmerizing and mysteriously moving installation with slow-motion video of authors’ faces. I loved the pavilion so made daily visits. I especially enjoyed hearing Shota Iatashvili, a friend from translation congresses in Moscow, speak about his story in collection The Book of Tbilisi, along with fellow author Zviad Kvaratskhelia, editor Becca Parkinson, and moderator Gvantsa Jobava. I need to order up the book! And look up other Georgian books that have been translated into English.
  • Georgian Music & Poetry. Shota and I went to the Georgian café in the pavilion after the story event: I was in serious need of coffee but they’d run out (!) so, well, what was I to do but settle for a glass of Georgian red wine? Which, of course, tasted very nice. The wine turned out to be for the best because it fit so well with an electronic poetry performance from Rati Amaglobeli and Gogi Dzodzuashvili on the nearby large stage. I loved it. Here’s a sample.
  •  Being Part of Something Bigger. Getting a sense of my tiny place in the book world – with the emphasis on “world” – and learning a little about how the book industry works is why the Frankfurt Book Fair feels so important to me. I’m not sure how the book fair counts visitors but 285,024 is a lot, even if it’s not unique visitors, and I’m glad I got out of my quiet home office for a few days to make sure the visitor count reached 285,023 + 1. (Or 285,020 +4 if the stats are per visit!)
  • Next Year. I’m already looking forward to next year when Norway – one of my favorite places on earth – will be the guest of honor. Time to take out all the Norwegian books I’ve accumulated but haven’t read.
  • Glad I Made It at All! Finally, travel being what it is these days, with so many indignities even on a good day and then unusual delays on bad ones, I’m glad I made it to Frankfurt as scheduled! (Doubly glad because I’d co-organized a dinner gathering with colleagues for that night!) I arrived at Logan Airport only about forty-five minutes before my flight because my bus was delayed for more than an hour on the highway thanks to a car fire in New Hampshire. The good people at the Aer Lingus desk told me I could make it – I’d checked in online and could carry on my tiny suitcase – and then they expedited me through security, watching to make sure I got through. I wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t already checked in (something I often slack on) and packing light meant no luggage complications (plus plenty of room to bring home books). Lessons learned!
I hadn’t meant to write an epic – so much for that “lazy listicle”!

Thank you again for your visits and kind words!

Up Next: Yasnaya Polyana Award winner. Reading roundups for English-language books and Big Book finalists.

Disclaimers: The usual. Although I went to Frankfurt on my own this year, I thank the Institute of Translation for helping me out in several ways in Frankfurt. Huge thanks, too, to everyone else who treated me to books, happy hour wine, and lovely meals!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Goodbye to Oleg Pavlov

I’d been planning to write a light, easy post today but I’m writing instead about the death of writer Oleg Pavlov. He died this Moscow afternoon, of a heart attack. He was only 48 and his death saddens me tremendously. 

Pavlov won the 2012 Solzhenitsyn Prize (previous post) and received the 2002 Russian Booker for his Карагандинские девятины, или Повесть последних дней (Requiem for a Soldier, in Anna Gunin’s translation for And Other Stories). Requiem for a Soldier is the final book of a trilogy that And Other Stories has published in full: the other two books are Казенная сказка (Captain of the Steppe in Ian Appleby’s translation) and Дело Матюшина (The Matiushin Case in Andrew Bromfield’s translation). Arch Tate translated Pavlov’s Асистолия (Asystole or Flatline) for Glagoslav; here’s a sample.

I’ve read only Captain of the Steppe (previous post, where I called it A Barracks Tale) and Flatline (previous post). Neither is cheery but both inspired tremendous respect for Pavlov’s writing. He was a very good writer. I’ve been intending to read the second two books of the trilogy for all too many years now.

Pavlov’s death brought back memories of meeting him at the London Book Fair in 2011, particularly debating the ultimate fate of Flatline’s main character with him and two other readers. I didn’t know him well at all, but Phoebe Taplin’s article for The Calvert Journal covers a great deal about Pavlov’s life and reminds me of my exchanges with Pavlov, too, in which he also described catching a cold in London and, among other things, told me I worked too hard and recommended books to read. I’m very sorry to learn of his passing.

Two other articles on Pavlov’s life and writing:

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The 2018 NOS(E) Award Longlist

The NOS(E) Award longlist – 22 books – was announced last week and for some crazy reason, I’m going to follow what’s more or less become a (personal) tradition and list all the books with brief (okay, often micro-) descriptions. The list will be debated and discussed, culminating in a shortlist announcement, on November 1. Readers may vote on the longlisted books on the Prokhorov Foundation Web site beginning October 15.

I’m not sure what order the Prokhorov Foundation used when they compiled this list but I’ll follow it. I’ve included links to samples, stories, and Журнальный зал listings for many entries – for many, a quick glance will give a sense of the book.

  • Denis Gorelov’s Родина слоников (Motherland of Little Elephants) is a nonfiction collection about Soviet cinema and the Soviet Union itself.
  • Vladimir Danikhnov’s Тварь размером с колесо обозрения (Beast/Creature the Size of a Ferris Wheel) is, sadly, a posthumous entry since Danikhnov, who was only 37, died earlier this month of the beast he writes about in the book: cancer.
  • Zinovy Zinik’s Ермолка под тюрбаном (A Yarmulke Under the Turban) concerns the life of Shabtai Zvi, offering parallels to (our) contemporary life.
  • Yury Leiderman’s Моабитские хроники (Moabit Chronicles) is set in Moabit, the region of Berlin where Leiderman has his art studio.
  • Natalya Meshchaninova’s Рассказы (Stories) is a familiar title: it was a 2018 NatsBest nominee and is on one of critic Galina Yuzefovich’s lists of books she recommended to translators at the recent translator conference in Moscow. (a story)
  • Anna Nemzer’s Раунд (Round, probably like a “round” of talks or negotiations, though we’ll see) is described as an “optical novel” (different points of view?) that’s based on conversations. Publisher Elena Shubina especially recommended it to me; it’s on my shelf. (a sample)
  • Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory) is already a finalist for the Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana awards. (An interview.) (A description.)
  • Eduard Verkin’s Остров Сахалин (Sakhalin Island) is described as containing post-apocalyptic adventure, a love story, lost hopes, and shades of Chekhov. (!)
  • Ksenia Buksha’s Открывается внутрь (Opens In) also comes recommended by Galina Yuzefovich. Linked stories. (A story)
  • Yevgenia Nekrasova’s Калечина-Малечина (Kalechina-Malechina, referring to a game) is yet another Yuzefovich pick. Shubina suggested this one to me, too; it’s on my shelf. (A sample)
  • Olga Beshlei’s Мой дикий ухажер из ФСБ (My Savage Suitor from the FSB, with “FSB” being the state security agency) is apparently a collection of stories; this one’s billed as literature about the young.
  • Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) is the novel about a cat that I loved so much earlier this year. (A sample.)
  • Alexander Arkhangelsky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau or something of the sort) is set in 1980 Moscow and feels like a sociocultural catalogue of the age. A Big Book finalist; I’ve read a large chunk (72% according to my reader – a new Kobo that I pretty much do truly love, as much as I can love an ereader, anyway) but the bureau just doesn’t call out to me.
  • Pavel Peppershtein’s Предатель ада (Hell’s Traitor) is yet another collection, though this one gets a “psychedelic” tag on the LitRes site, where there’s an illustrated sample.
  • Yulia Yakovleva’s . Жуки не плачут (literally Beetles Don’t Cry) is the third installment in Yakovleva’s series of books about Leningrad during World War 2, following on The Raven’s Children, which Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp has already translated into English.
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskayas Нас украли. История преступлений (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes) is set in the 1980s and 1990s; click on the English language title link for a full summary from Petrushevskaya’s literary agency.
  • Dmitry Garichev’s Мальчики (Little Boys) is a novella that appears to have only been published thus far in a literary journal; it’s a tough one for a quick study given a lack of dialogue and a plethora of long paragraphs.
  • Alla Gorbunova’s Вещи и ущи (hmm, this is kind of like Thing Things and Idea Things but even the author seems to prefer leaving that a mystery…) is a collection of stories. (One story) (Another story)
  • Polina Zherebtsova’s 45 параллель (The 45th Parallel) is a “documentary novel” about Stavropol, where the author lived after leaving Chechnya in 2004. (an excerpt)
  • Lev Rubinshtein’s Целый год (An Entire Year) looks like it’s a lot of brief texts about events that took place throughout history, organized in calendar order by day but mixing years. (a sample)
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dimov) looks at three generations of a family in a sort of ensemble piece, making it a quiet and calm sort of family saga. I found it pretty absorbing and enjoyable.
  • Viktor Pelevin’s iPhuck 10 is a nice way to finish the list, given that it’s the only title that needs no translation. No matter what it’s about.
My conclusions on this list: very few traditional novels, lots of collections, a fair bit of nonfiction, blends of genre, and one of the most balanced Russian lists I’ve seen in terms of gender, with ten books written by women and twelve written by men.

Disclaimers: The usual. I know and/or collaborate with some of the authors, publishers, and literary agents mentioned in the post. I have received some of these books from various parties.

Up next: English-language reading roundup, a brief Russian-language reading roundup, and Big Book finalists, where I’ve had an odd start, as the Arkhangelsky entry above shows. I read only the first of three (very loosely connected) parts Bykov’s June after finding parts two and three pretty dull after part one. I’m now reading Oleg Yermakov’s very long book with the mysterious title: time goes back a few centuries in the chapter I’ll be starting tonight, so fingers crossed on that little literary escapade. The first hundred pages read pretty easily with my biggest complaint being too many gratuitous mentions of Richard Ashcroft and The Verve. (And that despite my thorough appreciation for “Bittersweet Symphony.”)

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Moscow Trip Report 2: Translator Congress, Book Fair, Etc.

This year’s Moscow trip was so full of good stuff – meetings, the translator conference, book events, and the like – that I’m just going to focus on a few highlights. And even that will be far too much!

This year’s International Congress of Literary Translators, held by the Institute of Translation, hosted around 400 translators from 56 countries. The Institute divided us into eight concurrent tracks; we made our presentations over two days. (The PDF program is here.) Two of my favorite talks came in the opening, plenary, session. The first was from Galina Yuzefovich, one of the few remaining critics who writes consistently about contemporary Russian fiction; she spoke about new trends and names in Russian literature. On the sad side of literary fiction: authors receive honoraria of only 60,000-100,000 rubles per book (I’m not sure about the royalty situation), print runs are 3,000-5,000, awards (other than the Big Book) aren’t particularly authoritative so rarely help sell many books (I’ve heard this before), and much of the piracy problem is the result of the dearth of book stores outside large cities. On the positive side, Yuzefovich mentioned some of her favorite books from the last year or two. I read her reviews regularly so there weren’t many surprises in her list of long, roomy books:
  • Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi (interesting but I didn’t finish)
  • Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Text (still haven’t read it but want to)
  • Vladimir Medvedev’s Zahhak (previous post)
  • Yana Vagner’s Accomplices (unfinished, though I understand the appeal)
  • Alexei Sal’nikov’s NatsBest-winning The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu (unfinished but I brought home a print version)
  • Dmitry Bykov’s June (which I’m currently reading), and 
  • Eugene Chizhov’s The Translation (previous post, I loved this one!). 
Yuzefovich also listed three shorter books:
  • Yevgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina (the title refers to a game; this book’s on the shelf now)
  •  Ksenia Buksha’s Opens Inward, a collection of linked stories, and 
  • Natalia Meshchaninova’s Stories.
My note-taking broke down (for good) after that so, sadly, the only children’s literature title I managed was Yulia Yakovleva’s The Raven’s Children, which Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp has already translated. The next speaker, translator Anne Coldefy-Faucard, endeared herself to attendees by mentioning a certain “нюх” (I think of this as “a nose for” or the ability to sniff things out) a translator must possess to, for example, pick up little hints in a text. Many translators in the section I moderated added references of “нюх” to their talks – deservedly so since Anne’s a tremendously versatile translator (her translations were shortlisted in two categories for this year’s Read Russia award and she won for her work on Solzhenitsyn) whom I particularly respect for her no-nonsense approach to just about everything. Post-plenary, I heard lots of interesting, intriguing, and fun papers this year but will limit myself to mentioning just a few favorites: 
  • Ksenia Atarova gets top marks for her entertaining and off-beat talk on translating limericks by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll (handouts much appreciated!), 
  • I loved Fernando Otero Macías’s discussion of Russian words included in the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy (great handouts, too, I love lists), and 
  • Borut Kraševec did a nice job discussing difficult terminology (including camp slang) in Zakhar Prilepin’s The Cloister
A final Congress highlight: Klarisa Pul’son moderated an evening event that featured writers Alexei Sal’nikov (he of the afore-mentioned, flu-ridden Petrovs) and Lev Danilkin (he of a literarily fascinating Lenin biography). This “discussion” (was it that?) is indescribable because Sal’nikov and Danilkin exist on such different planes that neither had much interest in the other’s books (or ideas?), though the Q&A developed into a bizarre picture of the state of Russian contemporary literature that, again, is indescribable, though all too emblematic. Sal’nikov’s Petrovs felt a bit amorphous, even floaty (like, well, having the flu) to me; it is more enjoyable than the flu, though, so I’m looking forward to giving it another try. And Danilkin’s lively Lenin biography, something I expected to be dull and dry, felt like a veritable oasis among last year’s odd crop of books.

Mentioning Klarisa feels like the perfect way to move on to the smaller-than-ever Moscow International Book Fair, which I visited twice, the first time so Klarisa could grill me about favorite books during an event (there’s a Russian-language article about that here), the second to hear Grigory Sluzhitel’ speak about Savely’s Days, the book about cats (and people) that I loved so much earlier this year. Unfortunately Grisha’s event ran simultaneously with a talk by Marian Schwartz and Leonid Yuzefovich, who spoke about Marian’s translation of Leonid’s Песчаные всадники (Horsemen of the Sands), due out from Archipelago Books in late October, though at least we were able to meet up and chat!

Another Yuzefovich event was the perfect way to end my trip: he was ostensibly presenting a new story collection, but I think he focused more on his NatsBest-winning The Winter Road. He’d gathered descendents of the opposing Civil War figures in the book and they spoke, too, which was rather moving in and of itself, particularly since Yuzefovich’s book inspired the descendents to meet recently in Yakutsk. An updated version of The Winter Road (with more photos!) is on the way soon. There’s a Russian-language article about the Yuzefovich event here. A nice bonus that draws this circle back toward the start of the post: Eugene Chizhov, author of The Translation, was in attendance so we were finally able to meet in person.

I could go on and on and on about other papers and events – not to mention all the books I acquired – but I’ll stop there! The first part of this two-part series aired last week, here.

Up next: English-language reading roundup, a brief Russian-language reading roundup, and Big Book finalists, including Bykov’s June, which I’m (surprised to be) enjoying.

Disclaimers: The usual. I have ties to some of the books, translators, and authors mentioned. Many thanks are in order, particularly to the Institute of Translation for bringing me and so many of my colleagues to Moscow for these biennial conferences, which go so far (literally and figuratively!) in building a global community of translators; Klarisa Pul’son for inviting me to be the first translator in her book discussion series; various people, including publisher Elena Shubina, who generously gave me books; and everyone who treated me to coffee, snacks, drinks, and their company. It was a wonderful trip.