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.