Saturday, May 26, 2018

Salnikov and His Petrovs Win NatsBest

Aleksei Salnikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него won the National Bestseller Award today; I called the book The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu when it won the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) award earlier this year. The Petrovs took three NatsBest juror votes, Dmitrii Petrovsky’s Дорогая, я дома (I’m Home, Dear or maybe even Honey, I’m Home) got two, and Maria Labych’s Сука (Bitch) had one. You can watch the NatsBest ceremony on YouTube, here.

Although I reported feeling a bit underwhelmed when I read a large chunk of The Petrovs last year in electronic form, I’m very much looking forward to trying it again in print. I liked the tone and feel of the book, but it just didn’t seem right to read without paper. Among other things, I want very much to try to figure out how to hear the novel’s title.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, for having translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina.

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. Among other. Plus, in very short order, the Big Book Short list.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Literature in Translation: Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s Городские и деревенские, known in Nora Seligman Favorov’s pleasantly readable English translation as City Folk and Country Folk, is the sort of book that makes me just want to tell you to read the book because it’s a fun, smart nineteenth-century novel. I’m feeling especially minimalist about this post because the description and blurbs on the back of the Russian Library’s edition (check them out on Amazon) of Favorov’s translation cover the essence of the book so well that I’d love to just copy and paste them in here. I can certainly agree with the summarizer that City Folk and Country Folk truly is “a seemingly gentle yet devastating satire of Russia’s aristocratic and pseudo-intellectual elites in the 1860s.”

City Folk and Country Folk particularly struck me as an entertaining comedy of manners—and manors—by detailing the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Nastasya Ivanovna Chulkova, “a fifty-five-year-old widow and the mistress of fifty souls” who lives in a place called Snetki with her teenage daughter Olenka and two houseguests: a neighbor named Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, a writer and big traveler who’s rejected staying at his own estate thanks to his heightened appreciation of cleanliness; and Nastasya Ivanovna’s rather difficult second cousin, Anna Ilinishna Bobova. Although Ovcharov settles in the bathhouse, moving in with plenty of worldly goods, the novel could almost be called The Hazards of Houseguests.

And of course it could! Khvoshchinskaya piles on (in rational portions, of course) history, awkwardness, and wonderfully standard plot turns—there’s the recent emancipation of the serfs, Olenka’s marriageable age, talk of “little people” and class and places in society, Erast Sergeyich’s preferences for fresh whey and social commentary, Anna Ilinishna shutting herself in her room, and a pushy neighbor—to good effect, ensuring that both hilarity and insights will ensue. Exactly what I’d hope for from a comedy of manners and manors that contrasts urban and rural ways. I think what I enjoyed so much about City Folk and Country Folk is its brand of ordinariness, something Hilde Hoogenboom mentions in her very helpful introduction to the novel, albeit taking a more specific angle by describing Nastasya and Olenka as “unusual Russian heroines in that they are emphatically not extraordinary.” (Hoogenboom references Barbara Heldt’s Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature…)

In some senses, the very circumstances of the phenomenon of the novel—that Khvoshchinskaya wrote the novel under the pseudonym Ivan Vesenyev and was one of three writing sisters—seem almost more remarkable than the novel itself. But then, well, the fictional women really do, as they say, kick butt in City Folk and Country Folk, something that lends them automatic “extraordinary” status, given their setting. Olenka makes decisions for herself and almost literally runs circles around the pathetic suitor the pushy neighbor’s trying to set her up with and, as Hoogenboom notes, Nastasya’s a far better estate manager than the hapless Erast. There’s also a scene Hoogenboom rightfully calls “extraordinary,” when Nastasya treats her serfs “humanely” during conflict, choosing reason. That felt so natural to Nastasya’s character that I nearly missed it in all its extraordinariness. This, I think, is exactly what fiction should do, particularly when the writer (and the translator, too, in this case) make the feat look easy. I love this sort of extraordinary ordinariness, both in Russian fiction and in English translation.

Nora Seligman Favorov translates all this extraordinary ordinariness very nicely, so the book reads smoothly, from its preserved and footnoted French phrases to its feel for country life. She’s right that the novel offers lots of opportunities for “both scholarly investigation and pure reading pleasure” and, based on the result of all her work (as well as hints in her acknowledgements), it’s clear that she went to great lengths to ensure the text reflects the meaning and spirit of the Russian rather than (this is especially admirable!) making the novel feel like an academic exercise. I certainly enjoyed reading City Folk and Country Folk for fun but I’d also love to take a closer look at Khvoshchinskaya’s other writings as well as the fictional Erast Sergeyich’s essays, to see the novel a little better within its broader historical context. And, of course, to gain a more nuanced feel for the book’s humor.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I received a review copy of City Folk and Country Folk from the Russian Library imprint of Columbia University Press, thank you! I am also working on a translation for the Russian Library.

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation, among others. Plus, in very short order, the NatsBest winner and the Big Book Short list.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Anna Starobinets’s Look at Him

Perhaps the easiest thing to write about Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Look at Him) is that it blends several genres. The cover says “100% .doc” and the book is, indeed nonfiction—albeit a combination of memoir, medical history, and journalism, so not thoroughly .doc, at least to my mind—but what makes the book so compelling and human is that Starobinets puts her fiction-writing background to good use, pacing her book to develop a story arc and suspense. I could only read a little bit at a time because a personal story about late-term abortion is so intensely emotional. Even so, I had a hard time putting the book down at night.

Starobinets begins Look at Him at a routine ultrasound exam, to check her baby’s progress. She learns that her baby is a boy but she also learns he may have polycystic kidney disease. The medical side of her baby’s story is so complex, from many angles, including genetics, prenatal testing, and possible outcomes, that I won’t elaborate on that much. What’s most crucial to the book’s narrative arc is that Starobinets decides to terminate her pregnancy because doctors advise her that if she carries her son to term he will have a minimal chance of surviving.

Starobinets has been called a Russian Stephen King but learning about the realities of her child’s condition (which involves waiting and learning about various potential outcomes) and medical procedures for late-term abortion (some of which she quotes from online forums) in Look at Him mean she doesn’t need to embellish the truth to develop the afore-mentioned suspense. There’s another layer to the book, though, that creates at least as much tension: how the Russian medical system treats her much of the time. Without asking her permission, one specialist brings in medical students to observe her transvaginal ultrasound. Finding her way through the medical system is demeaning. She receives little empathy from many practitioners, though there are exceptions. And forgetting to wear foot covers can be problematic; she storms a clinic bathroom when she’s told she can’t go in without them. Her husband isn’t allowed in a clinic for her appointment, though she needs his moral support. And then there are the stories and admonitions she reads online.

Starobinets ends up going to Berlin after a friend finds a clinic for her. Many aspects of her treatment, both medical and human, are different there. Her husband is welcome at the clinic (even to spend the night) and she’s told “There is no reason why you should be in pain.” One of her biggest fears now is seeing her child. (This is where the book’s title comes from.) Starobinets and her husband are told at the clinic that parents usually look at their children after they’ve been born this way, meaning already dead; many even spend a day with them. Some of the most affecting scenes in the book describe Starobinets and her husband seeing their son after his birth, receiving an envelope with a photo and hand- and footprints, and visiting their baby’s grave later, when they return to Berlin for Starobinets’s husband, Alexander Garros, to have treatment for esophageal cancer. (Part of what made Look at Him so emotional is that I knew Garros died in 2017.) Starobinets notes that many Russian marriages break up after late-term terminations of pregnancy and she suspects that’s largely because husbands aren’t allowed into clinics, hospitals, or births. Or to look at their babies after the procedure and truly be able to share their wives’ grief. Garros helps Starobinets after their return home, too, when she has panic attacks And he’s with her when she gave birth to a healthy son in Latvia a couple of years later.

There’s lots more to Look at Him—I haven’t even touched on the role of Starobinets’s and Garros’s daughter in the family’s story—including a hundred pages of appendices covering interviews with doctors and patients plus comparative statistics on terminations of pregnancies in Germany and Russia. After reading some appendices and skimming others, I can see that they make Look at Him a sort of memoir that offers substantial background for other families faced with tough decisions based on prenatal exams and/or with similar emotions after the loss of a child with a congenital condition. More than that, it’s a book about life and death, basic human dignity, and treatment under various medical systems. (Unfortunately, dignity isn’t guaranteed anywhere, something I’ve certainly seen both from working as a medical interpreter for several years and from being a consumer of health care in the U.S., where the system gives ample opportunities to see absurd bureaucracy, burdensome pricing despite insurance, and bedside manner that can be indifferent, opinionatedly pushy, or inept at basic things like blood draws.) There’s been controversy about Look at Him, which is a finalist for the 2018 National Bestseller Award, but I commend Starobinets, as both a mother and a writer, for being able to sort through her emotions and knowledge, discuss her decisions (which not every reader will agree with), and write a book that tells so many real-life stories about what happened both during and after her pregnancy. Yes, it’s a work that’s both journalistic and personal rather than poetic or lovely, and some might see it as TMI, but Look at Me feels honest, like a genuine attempt to offer information to other families, no matter what they may ultimately decide when faced with similar situations that offer no ideal resolutions.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up next: I’m slowly wending my way through a heavy “write about” shelf: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned earlier, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk in Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation, and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And more…