Saturday, March 23, 2019

Switched at Birth: Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped

It’s taken me a month or two to get up the gumption to write about Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Нас украли, история преступлений (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes) but that’s less a factor of the love/hate spectrum (I’m on the really-liked-to-loved end) than of the simple fact that it’s very hard to describe. Sometimes time smooths over the complications, leaving contours that are helpful in writing meaningful summaries. We’ll hope that’s the case with Kidnapped, though I fear I’ve failed us all, including the book. I think the best way to do the novel justice is to suggest that you read the summary I linked to above, on the English-language title, since Petrushevskaya’s literary agents offer an excellent plot outline. And I’ll attempt to address some of what struck me most.

The novel begins with two young men bearing nearly identical passports – their names and birth dates are the same – flying off from Moscow to Montegasko. (Or maybe Montegasco, that’s more pleasing to the eye, isn’t it?) “Doesn’t exist,” I wrote in the right margin with “not typical kids” at the bottom of the page. We already have mysterious doubles (cue up “switched at birth” plus a mother’s death in childbirth and a fictitious family situation to satisfy bureaucracy) and a faraway, make-believe place. Petrushevskaya is already telling yet more scary fairy tales, this time about brothers who are both lucky and unlucky, not to mention about horrendous relatives to escape, magically good developments, and Soviet bureaucracy. As well as multiple mentions of Lloyd’s of London, thanks to the sinking of a ship during the “бешеные” nineties, years that are, literally speaking here, “rabid,” though we might call them “frenzied,” “mad,” and/or “violent” since the nineties, the age of vouchers, were basically was a horrible shipwreck for so many.

Petrushevskaya doesn’t focus solely on the boys, though: we get lots of backstory about their families, some of it told in chapters that read almost as set pieces detailing family abuse and abuses of power, as in the case of unscrupulous hospital workers. I could probably write this post as a list of tropes, many of them thoroughly bared: lonesome princess, foundling who will live like a king, a character feeling alone in the world and wanting to go to Moscow, and even an outright mention (in dialogue) of the sense of a soap opera involving babies switched at birth. And then there are all the sociocultural and sociopolitical myths and mores, with mentions of Soviet-era diplomatic ways (I loved the interrupted line, “And we, simple Soviet diplomats…”), the KGB, and the trauma of changing times, like those afore-mentioned nineties. I give Petrushevskaya particularly high marks for writing an ending that was so funny that I completely forgot what happened: beyond noting stereotypes about Russian life (vodka included, of course), there are interrogations (with lie detector) where Petrushevskaya notes an interpreter’s infelicities. It’s great stuff.

The strangest, scariest, and most magical part of all this is that Petrushevskaya somehow or other makes everything fit together and read as a real novel. Referring to some sort of literary alchemy or sorcery is perhaps most fitting since she seems to do the impossible, blending so many storylines, genres (the back cover’s statement from Petrushevskaya mentions detective novels), characters, locations, ways of life, and myths into a relatively seamless novel, a book that kept pulling me along. It kept me up at night, and even, yes, made me laugh out loud. It’s Petrushevskaya’s finessed hodgepodge of familiar elements and odd surprises that makes the book read so well – there’s something masterful in how she refreshes old stories in Kidnapped, using her distinctive style and contemporary twists as she toys with her material and characters. Her NOS(E) award, from the panel of critics, was thoroughly deserved. I think it’s time to reread her Время Ночь (The Time: Night).

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: London Book Fair trip report. And then a book that I won’t name, lest I jinx myself yet again. I’ve done a lot of required and recommended reading in recent months but am very happy to be back to free reading now!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Vodolazkin Wins 2019 Solzhenitsyn Prize

I’m very pleased to write that Yevgeny (a.k.a. Eugene) Vodolazkin won the 2019 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Literature Prize for organically combining Russian traditions for spiritual and psychological prose with an outstanding knowledge and mind for language arts, as well as for his inspired writing style. The Russian-language award citation, which I translated fairly loosely, is on the site here. Background on the award is here; I was particularly interested to read that the annual $25,000 prize money comes from “the proceeds of worldwide publications of The Gulag Archipelago.” Previous prize winners include Oleg Pavlov and Maxim Amelin.

As one of Eugene’s many translators – there are enough of us around the globe that we could hold quite a gathering to discuss our work on his books – I can only say that the statement hits on many of the reasons I love his writing so much. Although I might add humor to the list – his is often sly, quiet – I see that as part of the “высокая филологическая культура” that’s mentioned in the statement. Since we don’t really talk much about “high philological culture” in English, I opted for “outstanding knowledge and mind for language arts,” something that is, of course, closely tied to his playful use of words. Barbara Hoffert’s recent review for Library Journal touches on this nicely by calling Solovyov and Larionov “darkly witty.”

In my reading, Eugene’s writing displays a combination of clarity of voice plus a certain open-endedness that sometimes almost verges on feeling cryptical – that blend works well for me because once I hear his voices, I feel a lot of flexibility when translating. Of course it helps tremendously that he’s read all my manuscripts and answered numerous questions, assistance that dramatically reduced the risk of making poor choices. In short, I’m one very fortunate person to have translated three of his books for Oneworld!

My translation of Solovyov and Larionov, by the way, has already been released in the UK and will be out in the US in May.

Up Next: Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped, which I truly did enjoy and truly will write about! Trip report on upcoming London travel, which will include the London Book Fair and a bookstore event with Guzel Yakhina – I’m very excited that our Zuleikha will be out from Oneworld this week and was reviewed by Francine Prose in this week’s New York Times Book Review!

Disclaimers: The usual.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

ASEEES: My Happy Boston Slavist Convention Travel (Late Again!)

I’ve already established in multiple “Up Next” notes that last December’s Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) conference convention was “ridiculously fun,” which was probably a dangerous thing to write since I’m no David Lodge. Nothing wacky happened (I didn’t shop at the hotel convenience store) and I left for home before the Saturday night dance party started, though I saw a tweet about it on the bus ride from Boston. “Bus ride” hardly sounds like a synonym for “fun times” either but, well, the two-hour trip did not induce jetlag. Then again, there’s something to be said for the nervous energy that comes with a transatlantic plane flight. (Hello, London Book Fair!) In any case, ASEEES was particularly fun because, with thousands of Slavists in attendance I saw colleagues – both in pre-arranged and chance meetings – from all stages of my Russian studies life, from grad school decades ago to my Moscow years and my current incarnation as a translator. There’s something oddly comforting about that: things change, things stay the same, things are enjoyable. As even convention panels sometimes are, too. I’ll start with highlights of Russian literature panels.
  • The first panel I attended was on the legacy of Vladimir Makanin, where I took particular interest in hearing Byron Lindsey, who has translated Makanin (here’s a story), speak about knowing him, Vladimir Ivantsov speak about teaching him, and Irina Anisimova speak about Makanin’s Asan – I share Anisimova’s views of the narrative’s shortcomings and dead-end/failed plotlines. Since I was the only spectator at this panel (I’d heard this often happens at ASEEES), it was nice to join in the conversation after the papers.
  • A panel called “The Poetics of Space in Post-Soviet Fiction,” chaired by Sibelan Forrester, covered some familiar territory, too. I was sorry to miss Sofya Khagi speaking about Pelevin, Bykov, and Ilichevsky, but glad to catch Keith Livers’s paper on Alexander Prokhanov’s The Murder of Cities if only because I seem to recall someone thanking Livers for reading Prokhanov so others don’t have to. I’ve never read Prokhanov but after scribbling “signature motif of dismemberment,” in quotation marks, hmm, perhaps I should be thankful, too. Given my own reading and translation work, Muireann Maguire’s paper on Vladimir Sharov’s Before and During and Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator felt, of course, the most familiar and relevant – I loved hearing her speak about elements of clinical confinement, transitional spaces, and historiography. (I’d go on but don’t want to give away The Aviator’s big spoiler!)
  • I heard more discussion of contemporary fiction in a panel called “Russia’s History as Battlefield: Ideology, Politics, and the Response of Literature,” chaired by Dirk Uffelmann and with discussant Boris Noordenbos, who (according to my marginalia) studies conspiracy theories. Stehn Aztlan Mortensen spoke about Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria, seeing Sorokin as a sort of modern-day Gogol, and Kåre Johan Mjør spoke about contemporary conservative thought, but it was Ingunn Lunde’s discussion of “reimaginations of historical pasts” that particularly hit me because she analyzed many aspects of Mikhail Gigolashvili’s mammoth Mysterious Year, about Ivan the Terrible, covering its structure (one chapter, one day), stylized prose (e.g. mix of high-brow and oral usage), and themes that resonate today, such as Russia and the West, and spiritual and moral values.
  • Saturday got off to a great start with “Great Performances of Glasnost”: Breakthrough Events in Soviet-Western Literary Relations in the 80s and 90s, where I was sorry to miss Ellen Chances’s paper but very much enjoyed Carol Ueland’s on “The Arrival of New Soviet Writers, the PEN Readers of 1987, and Joseph Brodsky”; Nadezhda Azhghikina’s reading of (the absent) Natalia Ivanova’s piece about a 1991 conference of Russian women writers and American Slavists; and then discussant Nancy Condee’s wonderfully freewheeling talk about personal experiences living in Moscow during the Soviet period. There was tons to soak up here, particularly the combination of official delegations and personal experiences, all of which brought back lots of perestroika-era memories of visitors to my university, including Anatoly Rybakov, who spoke at my department at a time when, sadly, I hadn’t a clue who he was.
(I realize I’ve established a disgraceful-sounding pattern of missed papers: this is largely because it was difficult to ride the escalator or walk the corridors of the hotel’s conference area – where some conferees conventioneers pretty much set up remote offices in comfortable-looking chairs – without running into anyone familiar that I hadn’t seen in the last hour or thirty years. This was conference culture at its finest.)
  • And then there were the split sessions, where I heard most of Eliot Borenstein’s “‘No, You’re the Puppet’: Conspiracy and Agency in the Putin Era,” which was part of a panel on conspiracy theories in post-Soviet Russia and which I couldn’t resist for its discussion of the zombification of consumers of mass media, the passive behavior that results, and the dovetailing with conspiracy theory. Of course my notes on the paper may be garbled since I quickly started thinking more about (damn it!) mobile rabies, free will, race baiting, and the masses in Eduard Verkin’s Sakhalin Island (previous post), a book that, yes, ladies and gentlemen, still pokes at my addled brain cells. In any case, I’m already looking forward to Eliot’s Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism, which you can preview here (scroll down for the beginning!). I also highly recommend Eliot’s “Rereading Akunin” blog posts. Along the way to a theater panel, I resisted the call of Stephen F. Cohen’s familiar voice from a roundtable on “What Did the Soviet Dissident Movement Teach the Field: In Honor of Edward Kline and Valery Chalidze” in favor of arriving in time for Aleksei Semenenko’s paper on Othello.
  • The final session I attended, also only in part since I was late-late-late once again, this time thanks to goodbyes, was a roundtable, “Introducing Alternative Perspectives: Women’s Writing in Post-Soviet Russia and Former Socialist Republics,” that included discussion of Nastya Rybka (I think?) and Alisa Ganieva (definitely); chaired by Alisa Rowley, with participants Olga Breininger-Umetayeva, Vasilina Orlova, Aleksandra Simonova, and Susanna Weygandt. I enjoyed hearing their perspectives on feminism, women, and writing, and am very sorry to have missed the beginning.
  • My own paper, in a translation stream session about criticism chaired by Emily Finer, discussed online criticism of Russian-to-English translations. I focused on (and offered examples of) approaches that address elements of a translation without nitpicking about individual word choices but manage to find ways to express, in a balanced way, the reviewer’s preferences for a different approach – these sorts of reviews can be wonderfully tactful, constructive, and useful. My co-panelists were Timothy Sergay, with “Can Rejection of ‘Gotcha’ Criticism Be Reconciled with Interlinguistic Scrutiny?: Notes of a Rueful Reviewer of Translations,” and Hannu Kemppanen, whose paper “The Place of Translation in the Target Culture: Book Reviews as an Institution of Translation” (here’s another version of Hannu’s paper) offered a case study of a work of nonfiction by Yuri Komissarov (Deryabin in real life – the author was a Soviet diplomat) that was translated into Finnish and received fifty (!) reviews. Our discussant didn’t come so I somehow made it through my first academic conference without being discussanted. Maybe I’ll experience that dubious pleasure in 2020 in Washington.
I came home before the last day of the convention – I just couldn’t envision such an early Sunday morning – and wound up my ASEEES stay with a Russo-American Poetry Reading session, where highlights included readings by Polina Barskova, Matvei Yankelevich, and Pavel Arseniev. And then I headed off for the bus, towing a little suitcase half-filled with A History of Russian Literature by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler; and with smaller spaces taken up by Anna Burns’s Milkman, a wonderful colleague’s gift that I loved reading on the treadmill, a little at a time, feeling the rhythms of the skaz narration as I walked; as well as Linor Goralik’s Found Life, a collection of poems, stories, comics, and a play edited by Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokour that I’m planning to read chunks of soon alongside a Russian volume with very similar contents.

Up Next: Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped. And then something else.

Disclaimers: The usual, plus I’ve known Eliot Borenstein since my Moscow years. Thank you to Columbia University Press’s Russian Library – who will be publishing my translation of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog later this year! – for the copy of the Goralik book. Oxford University Press gave me a generous and much-appreciated discount on A History of Russian Literature.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

2019 NOS(E) Award Winners: No Surprises Here!

The Mikhail Prokhorov Fund’s NOS(E) Award held its annual debate-and-award ceremony last week and the results came as no surprise: Maria Stepanova won the main award for Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory or Post-Memory), Ludmilla Petrushevskaya won the critics’ prize for Нас украли. История преступлений (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes), and Viktor Pelevin won the readers’ vote (plus a Volga regional prize) for iPhuck 10.

Having read, in total or in part, only the Stepanova, Petrushevskaya, Anna Nemzer, Yevgenia Nekrasova, and Ksenia Buksha books – from this shortlist – about all I can say is that I think the Stepanova and Petrushevskaya books were the best choices from my limited pool. Although I enjoyed the Nemzer book (previous post) quite a bit, for all its momentum, history, and social themes, it just didn’t feel as accomplished or substantial as the Stepanova and Petrushevskaya books. Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina has its own wonderful charms (I loved some of the latchkey heroine’s ways of viewing the world, timing her days, for example, by her parents’ return home) but, after reading half, I have to agree with some readers that it feels more like a novella than a novel. K-M read to me like a crossover young adult book with serious material – bullying, absurd teacher behavior, parental discord, a damaged smartphone (oops!), and more – and, given its edginess, I was very disappointed that it didn’t quite hold my interest.

I’ve read some very high praise for Buksha’s Открывается внутрь (Opens In), too, but the two story-chapters that I read in this one (in my limited sample, Opens In felt more like connected stories than a novel-in-stories) just didn’t pique my interest: the storylines relating to young mothers, adoption, paternity, and similar themes, felt important but, sadly, too familiar. Buksha’s concept here – a shuttle van route links the characters and the book is divided into sections titled orphanage, mental hospital, and last stop, ouch for the life cycle – is solid but I felt a little shoved into a deterministic situation, something I write with the full realization that life’s like that, particularly for these characters. (And I’m all too sure I’m missing most of the book!) Some of the formal aspects (like minimalist punctuation in places and not hitting the caps key) felt reminiscent of Рамка (The Detector, previous post). Though my small chunk of Opens In felt more accomplished than The Detector, I found The Detector far more intriguing right from the start, thanks to its slightly futuristic premise, which Buksha plays with nicely, and varied characters.

I’ll be posting soon about Kidnapped, which I enjoyed for its humor, slyness, and fresh uses of familiar tropes. All the other books I mentioned are good in their own ways but there’s just no comparison to Petrushevskaya’s mastery of both subject and form. Stepanova’s book, which I’ve seen described as a “meta-novel” and which I also respect tremendously, is so different (previous post, from its Big Book win) that I’d probably describe it using words like “meditative” and “philosophical,” with a “meta-” thrown in somewhere for good measure.

Up Next: Petrushevskaya, Slavist conference trip report, and something else, we’ll see what.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received copies of several of the books mentioned in this post from the publisher and/or the Russian stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The 2019 NatsBest Nominees

The National Bestseller Award (NatsBest) announced its nominees (a.k.a. longlist) last week: 44 books chosen by 46 individuals. I appreciate NatsBest for a lot of things, particularly for revealing the list of nominators and nominations so I can see who’s lobbying for what. And even more particularly for posting reviews from the award’s Big Jury: I find myself referring to NatsBest reviews for, literally, years. The 2019 shortlist will be announced on April 9. Here are some of this year’s nominees:

Four (plus one) books I’ve already read and enjoyed in some way or another:
  • Olga Stolpovskaya’s I Hate That Little Bitch (previous post), nominated by Olga Aminova,
  • Grigory Sluzhitel’s Savely’s Days (previous post), nominated by Mikhail Vizel,
  • Eduard Verkin’s Sakhalin Island (previous post), nominated by Vasily Vladimirsky, and
  • Anna Nemzer’s The Round (previous post), nominated by Ilya Danishevsky, plus
  • Yevgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, nominated by Elena Shubina, which I’m still reading.
Three books (two of which look indescribable without reading them) are waiting on the shelf:
  • Timofei Khmelev’s кикер (foosball), nominated by Petr Birger,
  • Guzel Yakhina’s Дети мои (known as Children of the Volga in English), nominated by Evgeny Vodolazkin, and
  • Ksenia Buksha’s Открывается внутрь (Opens In), nominated by Maria Zimina.
The two books nominated twice are:
  • Alexander Etoev’s Я буду всегда с тобой (I Will Always Be With You), nominated by Pavel Krusanov and Alexander Zhikarentsev, a novel set in the Far North during World War 2, and
  • Nikolai Kononov’s Восстание (Uprising), a “documentary novel” apparently inspired by the life of Sergei Solovyov, one of the organizers of the Norilsk camp uprising, nominated by Darya Novikova and Leonid Yuzefovich.
Here a few books (already published in book form) written by authors unknown to me:
  • Dmitry Likhanov’s Bianca, nominated by Konstantin Milchin, involves a dog. Milchin, who often posts cat photos on Facebook when he travels, deserves credit for finding a canine friend to keep Savely company on the list. Milchin and I also have very similar taste in books so I may have to seek this one out.
  • Vlad Ridosh’s Пролетариат (Proletariat), nominated by Dmitry Alexandrov, is about workers in contemporary Russia – Ridosh apparently wrote it after working in a Siberian chemical factory.
  • Nim Naum’s Юби (Ove – apparently the title is a shortened version of «люби», “love,” so there you go, at least for now), nominated by Yevgeny Kogan, is set in May 1986 and concerns a dissident who moves from Moscow to Belarus when he’s likely to be arrested.
  • Alexei Polyarinov’s Центр тяжести (Center of Gravity), nominated by Ksenia Lukina, is about a young journalist, an artist, and a hacker.
There are also several books written by familiar authors whose stories and/or (other) books I’ve already read or even translated: Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina, Elena Minkina-Taicher, Narine Abgaryan, Alexander Snegirev, Vladimir Kozlov, Pavel Krusanov, Marina Akhmedova, and Andrei Rubanov. All in all, it’s a list with (for me, anyway!) a nice combination of familiar and unfamiliar names and titles.

Disclaimers: The usual. Plus ties to the NatsBest itself (I translated award secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina), plus a number of the nominees, publishers, and authors. Six or seven of the books on the list were given to me by various parties.

Up Next: Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped, Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, and the Slavist convention trip report, which I wrote last weekend but (ah, cold weather laziness!) just couldn’t bring myself to check, reread, and post. I’m very sorry to report that I had to set Alexei Salnikov’s Petrovs in and Around the Flu aside again: yes, the first chapters made me giggle but then the storytelling got bogged down, losing its narrative drive so fatally that I didn’t even care that Petrova was losing her mind. These Petrovs seem to be a love-‘em-or-hate ‘em sort of enterprise, with readers either thinking the book is fresh, wonderful, and one of the best in recent years or (like me) just not understanding why readers love and tout it so much. I started losing my patience during the chapter about little Petrov, when I found myself sensing something familiar and then realized I’d been comparing (alas, not so favorably) to Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Petrovich (previous post), which I enjoyed so much. No matter what the Petrovs are supposed to be telling us – and I’ve seen plenty of explanations, from everyday life to allegories involving illness and replication of influenza itself – despite the book’s odd charm and appeal to many readers, it feels as if there’s something in the book’s internal logic that just doesn’t click into place. At least not for me; I threw in the towel at page 171. That despite quite a bit of laughter about Petrov’s ability to, for example, draw odd people into his orbit while riding public transportation, something highly, as they say these days, “relatable.” As I’ve written before, when I find myself not wanting to read (particularly when there’s a befuddling muddle in the middle) I know it’s time to switch books. And, sometimes even to get a flu shot, something I finally did all too recently. I’ll sign off on that happy note. Happy reading!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Tidying Up the Shelf: Quick & Basic Takes on Books by Ganieva, Yakovleva, and Stolpovskaya

I’d been planning to write about the ASEEES (Slavist!) conference this week but my “read recently/read sooner” shelf is so packed that I decided to focus instead on three books so they can go to the stacks: Alisa Ganieva’s Оскорбленные чувтсва (Offended Sensibilities), Yulia Yakovleva’s Небо в алмазах (hmm, maybe The Diamond Sky?), and Olga Stolpovskaya’s Ненавижу эту сучку (I Hate That Little Bitch). All three books read quickly and easily, with no thoughts of quitting – what a relief after last year’s horrible streak of books that felt like rough drafts! A few thoughts on each book:

Ganieva’s Offended Sensibilities combines whodunnit (why did the regional economic development minister die?) with elements of parody and/or satire (I can’t quite decide which I’d emphasize but let’s say there’s arch humor), recent sociopolitical developments (corruption plus, yes, offended sensibilities), personal stories (one life is particularly hard-knock), and tinges of Gogol’s Government Inspector. The book is set in an unnamed Russian city, taking Ganieva away from her usual setting of Dagestan, and she certainly seems to enjoy her change of scenery. Among other things, she serves up some juicy love triangles, vivid details of opulent, over-the-top lifestyles, conflicts over how history is taught, protests, and a romance between one of the dead chinovnik’s staff members and a police detective. Offended Sensibilities left me with the impression of a light-but-pretty-serious novel about twenty-first century culture wars, politics, and the need for love. A couple of scenes felt a touch long but the book didn’t drag and I enjoyed seeing Ganieva’s city through characters who form a sort of Greek chorus showing contemporary life to the reader. Sure, the book is very Russian but many of the details feel painfully familiar. For more: an excerpt translated by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler; that page has a link to a She’s in Russia podcast about the book.

The Diamond Sky, by Yulia Yakovleva, is volume three of crime-solving from Leningrad police detective Vasily Zaitsev. This time around, Zaitsev investigates the death of silent film actress Varya Metel’ (her surname means “blizzard”), who’s found in her room at a communal apartment where she lives with a group of people friendly to her. Although the settings in this Yakovleva book didn’t quite feel as textured as her other two – probably because this communal apartment isn’t as gritty as others, the “friendly” above is important – my notes included “overwhelming sense of dust => old things/times” and “she doesn’t want people to see her aging/changes.” All true and all part of Metel’s story. Despite not finding The Diamond Sky (the diamonds, by the way conjure up an aspect of Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs) nearly as intriguingly convoluted as installment one or as unusually mixed in genre as installment two, the book still made for a very decent companion on winter evenings. I can only say a big “ouch” about what Zaitsev finds in the mystery’s denouement.

I enjoyed the Ganieva and Yakovleva books but (largely for reasons of genre) it’s Stolpovskaya’s I Hate That Little Bitch that has the most heart and soul: the novel tells the story of two women who work together at a TV production company (I think that’s the right way to put it) and start living together. The narrator, a Muscovite, is no longer with her husband and her girlfriend, Alex, was born in Russia, emigrated to Australia, then came to Moscow to work, away from her Australian husband. Stolpovskaya includes lots of little details that characterize her people, their settings, and their situations: a research institute renting out office space (been there, done that!), the narrator reading Kharms to her daughter at bedtime, and green slime (the “toy”) getting stuck on an Australian ceiling. There’s even an incident with an Australian bat. And a naked pianist. A trip from Moscow to Australia with other co-workers (!) felt a bit long (yes, travel delays are real but these made for slightly tedious reading) and sometimes the family feels a bit too wacky for fiction (see above: naked pianist) but Australia serves as a “through the looking glass” setting for the narrator to see Alex in a new way. (There’s a fair bit of antipodeness running through the book.) I certainly wouldn’t argue with the blurby back-cover quote from Stolpovskaya saying the book is about freedom. I think that, along with a combination of humor and melancholy about not belonging, is what helped the book endear itself to me, despite the travel delays: I love reading about women I can’t help but root for because they do what they want and aren’t afraid to love as they wish.

A quite note: I’m reading primarily books written by women this winter as I prepare to participate in a panel at the London Book Fair on March 14: “Women in Literature & Translation: Realities & Stereotypes.”

Up Next: The Slavist conference. Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped. Alexei Salnikov’s The Petrovs In and Around the Flu, which I truly am enjoying a million times more in print format – it makes me giggle.

Disclosures and Disclaimers: The usual. Something connects me to each of these books.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Anna Nemzer’s The Round

Anna Nemzer’s Раунд (The Round, I think) is a perfect example of why I don’t like to know (too) much about books before reading them. I knew The Round was polyphonic and I knew a main character was trans, but that’s about it. The Round is a finalist for this year’s NOSE Award.

What I didn’t know about The Round (or maybe never quite processed since I was jetlagged?) is that it covers about a century, is written in what I’ll call verbatim style, and is composed primarily of various sorts of interviews. Some of the characters are based on real people (I recognized Solomon Mikhoels, among others, though not the rapper) and some of what happens feels very up-to-the-minute. I’m torn on how many specifics to mention: on the one hand, they might attract readers but the most news-based line of the plot surprised me, making me afraid of spoilers. So I’ll be vague.

I often have difficulty with fictionalized versions of real figures and current events but Nemzer’s background as a journalist and her use of .doc stylistics – the interviews, some of which even mention an important, real documentary film – give her stories tremendous raw emotion and verisimilitude. The book opens with an interview with Dima, a rapper who’s been jailed for extremism; his girlfriend is now a trans man. And then Nemzer dives into the past, with interviewees who tell of theater and relationships… I don’t think it spoils much to mention that many of The Round’s characters are related, through blood and work.

The Round is described as “оптический роман,” an “optical novel,” something easy enough to see, though I admit I slacked off on tracking the optical thread. Chapter titles fit the theme –Doppler effect, x-ray, laser, etc. – plus one character’s profession is related to optics. Another is losing their vision. And of course we see events in various tellings, from different angles.

The Round had a strange effect on me. The first chapter/interview, with Dima, caught me because of his relationship with Sasha; I wanted, desperately, to find out what would happen. And though the more historical figures interested me less, they also felt familiar and even interesting, thanks in part, to all the years I read a Russian film journal. But what really kept me reading was momentum. The interviews and chapters and characters and their stories kept building on one another, circling around and around. (I think the novel’s title probably refers most directly to rounds in battle rap, as Languagehat suggested in a comment on another post, but a more general sense of “rounds” for talks (or interviews) or even a boxing match also feels pertinent.)

I’ll confess that I read The Round far, far too quickly: sure, interviews read easily because of familiar, colloquial language as well as lots of white space, but I just couldn’t put the book down, zipping through because I had to find out how the characters would end up relating to one another. I couldn’t help myself. (And let me just say that was a great feeling after all my unsatisfying reading last year!) For once, the balance of fact and fiction felt just right and Nemzer’s clever weaving of relationships, times, metaphors, and ambitions – and use of detail – works beautifully for this exploration of human nature, love, cruelty, truths, storytelling, and current events. And I loved the ending.

Up Next: Books by Alisa Ganieva, Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Yulia Yakovleva, and Olga Stolpovskaya. Slavist conference trip report.

Disclaimers: The usual. Publisher Elena Shubina recommended The Round to me and I took her up on a copy – thank you!