Sunday, September 15, 2019

My Lucky Day: The 2019 Yasnaya Polyana Longlist

Yesterday really did feel like my lucky day: just after I sat down, book at my side, to start blogging about Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, I noticed a Facebook post about this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Why lucky? Because I was in more of a news mood than a book description mood. Meaning: Here’s a post about the forty-three-book longlist, of which I’ve read six in full and seven in part, with another five already on the shelves. As usual, several overlap with other award lists (notably the Big Book shortlist) and some are only available in journals.

The Yasnaya Polyana shortlist will be announced later this month; the award ceremony will be held in October. This list is so long and so full of titles I’ve seen but don’t know much about that I don’t have many guesses about what might make the short list. So I’ll just get on with things!

Books I’ve already read in full:
  • Alisa Ganieva’s Оскорбленные чувтсва (Offended Sensibilities) (previous post), an entertaining depiction of contemporary life in a smallish Russian city.
  • Anna Kozlova’s Рюрик (Rurik) is the one I’ll write about next week. I liked Rurik a lot for its biting humor, portrait of people and mores in the contemporary world, and edginess.
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina (previous post), which I admired for Nekrasova’s imagination and Platonovesque flourishes. A Big Book finalist.
  • Anna Nemzer’s Раунд (The Round) (previous post), a novel with a documentary feel that covers past and present with raw emotion, colloquial language, and suspense. A NOSE finalist.
  • Aleksei Saln’ikov’s Опосредованно (Indirectly or something similar) is one of my favorites of the year, though I haven’t written about it yet because I want to reread it in hard copy. A woman living in the Urals in a world a lot likes ours writes poetry, which has narcotic effects. A 2019 Big Book finalist.
  • Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post) was one of my 2018 favorites: I just couldn’t resist the first-cat narrative set in Moscow. Another 2018 Big Book finalist.
Other 2019 Big Book finalists on the YaP longlist:
  • Aleksandr Gonorovsky’s Собачий лес (Dog Forest, though I’m suspecting layers of meaning here…) apparently combines a lot of genres and addresses topics including historical trauma. I have yet to begin this book.
  • Roman Senchin’s Дождь в Париже (Rain in Paris) is about a Russian man who’s in Paris reflecting on his life and missing out on seeing the city. Rain in Paris is cleanly written and contains lots of material for readers interested in the 1980s and 1990s in Russia (ah, video salons!) but it felt derivative (вторичный) and too familiar to me, meaning I couldn’t get past the first day of drinking and reminiscences in the hotel room. (Recommended, though, for anyone interested in that period who has not yet read much fiction about it.)
  • Vyacheslav Stavetsky’s Жизнь А.Г. (The Life of A.G.) concerns a Spanish dictator who fails to shoot himself (to escape punishment) and is sentenced to being paraded around the country in a cage. Despite my interest in twentieth-century Spain (it comes up a lot in my Russian reading) and despite my love of language (where would I be without it?), I quickly grew frustrated with Stavetsky’s wordiness (which Galina Yuzefovich sums up perfectly in her review for Meduza) and loads of background information. I’ll try it again to give it a fair shot for the Big Book but I felt like both A.G. and I were victims of the undertow of Stavetsky’s waves of words and sentences.
  • Guzel Yakhina’s Дети мои (Children of the Volga) blends history and fairy/folk tale motifs in a novel about a Volga German man and his daughter. Reading in progress.
A few authors I’d never heard of (there weren’t many to choose from) whose books sound promising:
  • Lora Beloivan’s Южнорусское Овчарово (Southern Russian Ovcharovo, where the title is apparently a place name and “Ovcharovo” is related to the word for a shepherd dog if a book site commenter is to be believed) sounds like a cozy, enjoyable book set in the Russian Far East.
  • Evgenii Kaminskii’s Свобода (part two) (Freedom) looks very northern, with its ice packs and bears. After the hot summer, give me winter.
  • Maria Rybakova’s Если есть рай (If There’s a Heaven/Paradise) is a bit of a cheat because I didn’t recognize her name until I saw she also wrote Гнедич (Gnedich), translated by Elena Dimov for Glagoslav.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Two authors I’ve translated are on the Yasnaya Polyana jury and I’ve received many of the above-mentioned books from publishers, authors, or the Big Book Award.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise, two books in English, and some other books in Russian.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

It’s the Pits: Digging Deep In A. Pelevin’s Kalinova Yama

Yes, Alexander Pelevin remains my favorite Pelevin even if his Калинова Яма (Kalinova Yama) doesn’t offer quite the level of cosmic suspense and heady thrills, chills, and excitement of Четверо (The Four) (previous post), which I so enjoyed a couple months ago. In The Four, Pelevin skillfully, even sneakily (I admire “sneakily” in writers), connects three very distinct plotlines, partly aided by, surprise!, a Vvedensky poem. Kalinova Yama feels heavier, weightier, with its twentieth-century history – Spain, Germany, the USSR, wars – and the novel’s storytelling devices feel slightly labored, too, though I enjoyed the tension of the slower pace. All told, Kalinova Yama v. The Four is a case where the comparison sounds far harsher than the reality, at least for me: I finished and enjoyed Kalinova Yama, unlike a friend who picked it up thinking it was by that other Pelevin; alas, she found the book “нудная (the Oxford Russian Dictionary offers up “tedious” and “boring” – think “nudnik”!), perhaps because she was expecting something completely different. Kalinova Yama did feel a slight bit long, something Dmitry Bykov mentions here, so pruning could have prevented a little skimming, per Elmore Leonard’s tenth rule, here. But I digress.


So, yes, I finished the book, enjoying it and letting it keep me up at night. Describing Kalinova Yama isn’t easy, though. I jotted in the back of my book “blends World War 2, psychology of the 1930s, folk motifs, spy novel.” All basically true. The main character initially seems to be a Soviet journalist, Oleg Safronov, but he turns out to be German, one Helmut Laube, who’s working undercover and receives instructions to travel to Kalinova Yama in June 1941. He tells his editor he wants to go interview a local writer. (Ha!) The catch – the mystery, really, which I’ll be very vague about so as not to spoil things – is that something happens in Kalinova Yama and Laube’s train ride turns out to be extraordinarily, even epically, problematic.

Pelevin writes his novel in several layers. The layer that interested me most was Laube’s activity in June 1941: the runup to his travel and the travel itself, which gets weirder and weirder. And then even weirder. But I like weird. (In fact I’m prizing weird books more and more these days, perhaps because of the state of the world?) I loved the numerous takes on the train station and Laube’s contact in Kalinova Yama, not to mention the conductor in Laube’s train car; the word “проводник” can also mean a sort of guide, which this conductor ends up being, too. Other pluses: interrogation transcripts that are interspersed throughout the novel and some of the texts attributed to the local writer. I was less interested in Laube’s past in Spain and Poland (some passages felt too long) and his future, from which he tells of his post-war fate; I zipped through some of it fairly quickly.

There were other texts tossed in, too, including an article (real or not, I’m not sure) about the psychology of the яма/yama, a word that means, among other things, “pit” or “dip” or “pothole” or even “prison,” and is used in the book’s title, which is a toponym. This, of course, sets up an interesting set of pits: the personal and psychological, as well as the geographical and physical, plus something bigger and more metaphysical, what I came to think of as a sort of meta-pit. Pelevin’s at his best describing what I’ll call Laube’s series of approaches into Kalinova Yama (there’s far more to it!) and all the confusion (so much confusion! so many dreams! so many nationalities! so many names!) that arises around Laube, then tossing in information on how others see Laube. There are also nice touches like a talking duck, a yucky hotel, and a cigarette case that magically doesn’t empty. All in all, my only regret is that I read The Four, Pelevin’s third book, before reading Kalinova Yama, which is his second book: Kalinova Yama has more than enough to offer as an interesting, twisted, and even enigmatic exploration of identity and reality that kept me reading and wondering, but The Four felt much more accomplished, more sparkling, to me, with nothing at all (per Elmore Leonard) that I ever considered skipping or skimming.

Disclaimers and disclosures. The usual.

Up next. Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Big Book finalist Earthly Paradise, and then something else. Two books written in English: Jennifer Croft’s memoir Homesick and Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Women In Translation Month: A Few Polleny Notes

I’ve been slipshod over the years about posting during Women in Translation Month – WIT began in 2014, led by Meytal Radzinski, and I wrote a post then about some favorite writers – but there’s a lot to note this year, so no shirking. Participating in a London Book Fair roundtable on women in translation this March is one factor. And the first couple dozen entries for this year’s list of translations is another. I’ll start by saying that a few points I made when I summarized the London roundtable for the blog keep running through my head:
I seem to recall repeating that plenty of Russian women are writing high-quality books that deserve to be translated, adding “It’s only fair!” several times. Post-LBF, my biggest hope is that more (“all” is probably asking too much!) translators, agents, scouts, publishers, and others in the industry – men or women – will think more about these disparities when they read, research, and consider projects. Our choices and decisions matter.
Although statistics from Chad Post’s translation database (there’s an article here) show a decline for translations into English from all languages over the last couple years (numbers are down from a high in 2016 of 666, which was surely not a lucky number to hit), they also show that the percentage of translations of women’s books rose from thirty percent (2017) to thirty-six percent (2018). I agree with Chad that that’s “still bad” but is (obviously) “a step in the right direction.” Chad posted other data here, just recently; the data on Russian don’t surprise me a bit.

I’m not sure how things will look for the 2019 Russian-to-English translation list when I have more data at the end of the year, but of the twenty-three books on the list right now, thirteen were written by women. It’s early and nearly all the listings came to me passively; I haven’t yet begun looking at publisher sites. Since I’m an optimist, I’m going to hope women are better represented in this year’s crop of books than last year’s, when roughly twenty to twenty-five percent of the books were written by women. (I say “roughly” and offer a range because some books were written by multiple authors and there was slippage on publication dates. Plus I’m a lousy with numbers.)

So, accentuating the positive, as I love to do, here are a few highlights (a couple of which are my own, since they make me especially happy!) from the initial 2019 listings:

  • Anna Starobinets’s “Beastly Crimes” series, translated by Jane Bugaeva, rules! Dover Publications is bringing out three more Beastly Crimes books in 2019. I haven’t read them but I couldn’t be happier for all involved since translated literature for children is so important.  
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  • Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, in Polly Gannon’s translation, was reviewed (here) by Randy Rosenthal in a recent New York Times Book Review. I mentioned briefly earlier this year that Francine Prose reviewed my translation of Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha for the Book Review, too, here. I’m glad some of our books are receiving attention in mainstream media.
  • Zephyr Press is publishing two poetry collections by women: Anzhelina Polonskaya’s To the Ashes, translated by Andrew Wachtel, and Aigerim Tazhi’s Paper-thin Skin, translated by J. Kates. Bonus: both these books are bilingual!
  • The Russian Library’s list for 2019 includes several books written by women: Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die (Бессмертный in Russian), translated by Marian Schwartz; Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life, translated by Barbara Heldt, and Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog translated by me, with a foreword by Lara Vapnyar that’s on LitHub here. A small commercial note: These titles and others are available at a thirty percent discount on the Columbia University Press Website (code: WIT2019). Among the others: In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky. Susan Bernofsky, by the way, compiled a list of some other publishers offering Women in Translation specials this month; visit her blog, Translationista, for more
  • And one more: I’ve seen some very happy reader comments about Bryan Karetnyk’s translation of Irina Odoevtseva’s Isolde, from Pushkin Press.

On a bit of a side note: Despite my pleasure about the potential for an uptick in translations of Russian women writers, I still find it frustrating that (for reasons I’ll never determine since I lack access to full nominee lists, a crucial factor that is often overlooked, and don’t know the first jury’s personal tastes and preferences) only three of this year’s twelve Big Book finalists are women, the same twenty-five percent as last year. I’ve already read two long-listed books written by women that didn’t make the shortlist – Anna Nemzer’s Round and Anna Kozlova’s Rurik – and am especially sorry that Rurik, which (like Round) is edgy, risky, and very contemporary, didn’t make the cut. (I realize that edgy, risky, and very contemporary are qualities that some readers and jurors might hold against Rurik, but I love to see authors at least try to stretch, even if not everything works. I think Rurik works pretty well, though.) All that said, I’ve often noted that books by women seem to do very decently (perhaps, happily, even disproportionately well?) in final Big Book voting, giving an overall impression of quality over quantity. Maria Stepanova, for example, won last year, when only two of eight finalists were women.

Quality is, of course, largely a matter of taste but it’s more important to me than raw numbers – not just for award listings but for my own reading – so I hasten to add that I’m grateful that this year’s Big Book shortlist is such a big (huge, really) improvement, quality-wise, over the 2017 and 2018 lists. One of the good things about a strong, very readable shortlist is that it usually means there are excellent reading prospects on the longlist, too: I already know for sure that Verkin’s Sakhalin Island is irritatingly absorbing despite being uneven and that even if Buksha’s Opens In isn’t my book, it’s well-written and -composed. I’ve heard and read good things about several of the other longlisted books and, in keeping with my tastes and “it’s only fair,” I made sure to buy the longlisted books written by Alisa Ganieva and Marina Akhmedova, and have Alla Khemlin’s waiting, too, along with books by Bulat Khanov and Nikolai Kononov.

Disclaimers: The usual. I translated two books mentioned in this post and know some of the translators, publishers, and authors whose names appear here. It’s ragweed season and my ragweed allergy can cause serious syntactical and logical malfunctions.

Up Next: Alexander Pelevin’s Kalinova Yama (okay but disappointing), Anna Kozlova’s Rurik (energetic and funny), Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Big Book finalist Earthly Paradise (a bit confused), and then something else. (I’m having mixed feelings about Olgerd Bakharevich’s very long Dogs of Europe, which is also on the Big Book shortlist but am going to take the chunk approach; that’s its structure anyway. Plus: Minsk. Minus: wordy.) Two books written in English: Jennifer Croft’s Homesick and Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Verbinina’s Moscow Time

I think I’ve written before that I have a particular (perhaps even peculiar) attraction to detective novels because I enjoy reading about fears. Valeria Verbinina gives her Московское время (Moscow Time) a perfect setting for all sorts of fears: Moscow in 1939. Verbinina’s retro detective novel doesn’t offer the “изящество” and “вкус” (elegance and taste) that Akunin’s Fandorin series offers right on the cover, but Moscow Time made for good, albeit slightly didactic, entertainment during a busy time in the heat of summer. (“Busy” and “heat” pretty much sum up my whole summer!) Even if many of the novel’s details were long-forgotten a few days after finishing, the contours of the book – which feel most important anyway – settled in pretty solidly.

The basic plot is relatively simple: a student named Nina walks into in the middle of a police operation one night on her way home from the Bolshoy Theater, where she’s just seen Ivan Susanin. (!) Nina immediately develops a crush on one of the (disguised) team members, a respected and dedicated investigator fond of sleeping in his office. Nina lives in a communal apartment, an aspect of the story that reminds me a bit of Yulia Yakovleva’s retro detective novels: communal apartments offer fantastic opportunities for introducing characters with diverging histories, professions, and motives. And of course residents often clash. Although Verbinina sometimes goes on a bit too long when telling backstories – though I sincerely love that Nina’s father is a tuba player – she puts the neighbors to good use in her plot. A plot that includes a serial killer. A strangler.

The whodunnit aspect of Moscow Time feels less important than all those fears I mentioned. There’s discussion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and lots of background on World War 2, plus details on Nina’s father’s earlier life, which includes World War 1 and 1917. Appropriately, that chapter is called “Тревога,” “anxiety” or “alarm.” Verbinina’s narration, which sometimes reverts to the first-person, as if the narrator is a guide to times past, offers plenty of hindsight, not to mention a few footnotes, including one that alerts the reader that saccharine was used a lot in the Soviet 1920s. There’s also some history of early Soviet-era serial killers, including one that Mikhail Bulgakov wrote about in “The Komarov Case”. (Bulgakov also appears in some of Verbinina’s chapter epigraphs.) Though I occasionally thought the narration and footnotes got a little too pedagogical (saccharine, for example, is something I’ve run across many times), I enjoyed picking up other historical tidbits.

There’s plenty more here to observe, including Verbinina’s use of redacted curses (I’m sure people really did swear in Soviet times!); one character accusing another of using a newspaper photo of Stalin for, ah, wiping; differing opinions on Vertinsky; a character who is (once) called Lizok, and some marital advice. On a more plot-oriented level, there’s some good-cop-bad-cop material plus a downtown chase scene involving a bread truck. All in all, Moscow Time was easy, entertaining reading that just keeps rolling along, the sort of book I’d be quick to recommend to readers looking to build their Russian reading skills. There’s lots of dialogue and the story moves along at a decent clip. Even if it’s not dense with suspense and ends a touch too rapidly, what interested me most about Moscow Time in the first place was observing how a prolific contemporary Russian author envisions Soviet-era serial killings and communal life in a novel that blends history, crime, and coming of age.

And now off to the beach with another detective novel, Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, set in the Middle Ages.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.

Up Next: Alexander Pelevin’s Kalinova Yama, which was good but not the wonder of The Four, and Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, which has really sucked me in.