Sunday, November 8, 2020

NOS(E) Award Shortlists – 2020-2021

As if last week’s U.S. elections weren’t enough, there’s literary excitement to report: shortlists for the 2020-2021 NOS(E) Award! The best benefit of my full NOS(E) longlist posts (this year’s is here) is that (even on a tired day) they’re ready to be repurposed into shortlist posts with just a bit of cut/paste. So here I go now. Right after noting that the winners will be announced in early 2021.

First, the jury’s shortlist, ten books:

  • Shamshad Abdullaev: Другой юг (The Other South). This is Abdullaev’s first book of prose – apparently all of it – and the publisher promises (among other things that I’ll summarize and paraphrase from the description) a hypnotic Central Asian landscape and nonlinear techniques reminiscent of Proust and Beckett. (Do click through on Abdullaev’s name for more on his life and poetry, some of which has been translated.)  
  • Polina Barskova: Седьмая щелочь: тексты и судьбы блокадных поэтов (The Seventh Alkali [which is a sort of cleansing wave/wash]: The Texts and Fates of Blockade Poets). This book covers work by Gennady Gor, Pavel Zaltsman, Natalya Krandievskaya, Tatyana Gnedich, Nikolai Tikhonov, Sergei Rudakov, and Zinaida Shishova. The mysterious title (explained here, in Igor Gulin’s review for Kommersant) comes from a poem by Krandievsksya.
  • Maria Buras: Истина существует. Жизнь Андрея Зализняка в рассказах ее участников (Truth Exists. Andrei Zaliznyaka’s Life As Told By Those Involved or somesuch). Zaliznyak, who died in 2017, was a linguist who studied very old literature and documents, including those written on birchbark (!!! This makes me want to learn more!). Buras was his student and friend.
  • Andrei Gogolev: Свидетельство (Evidence, perhaps?). Hm, this one is especially mysterious.
  • Alla Gorbunova: Конец света, моя любовь (It’s the End of the World, My Love). Short stories set in the 1990s and 2000s.
  • Ragim Dzhafarov: Сато (Sato). Apparently the story of a child who thinks he’s being held hostage and is brought to a psychologist.
  • Aleksei Dyachkov: Хани, БАМ (Khani, BAM). Stories set during work on the Baikal-Amur Mainline
  • Evgenia Nekrasova: Сестромам (Sistermom, see the comments, below, for Languagehat’s note on the book’s subtitle) (title story). Short stories, of which I have read (and very much appreciated) several.
  • Vitaly Terletsky (with artist Katya): Собакистан (Dogistan, perhaps, though that’s awfully close to Dagestan…). Comics. Dystopia. Dogs. Colta has a big interview with Terletsky and Katya here, about two of their books.
  • Mikita Franko: Дни нашей жизни (Days of Our Life). A novel about a boy whose life seems typical. But has lots of secrets. The description and even the reader reviews/comments on livelib.ru seem very concerned about spoilage so I didn’t read much about it… though whilst googling around, I found that articles on Days of Our Life often mention LGBT families right up front, including in this interview with the author.

The critics’ panel, which chose eight books, saw things a little differently. That group chose the books by Abdullaev, Barskova, Gorbunova, and Nekrasova, plus four others:

  • Olga Allenova: Форпост. Беслан и его заложники (Outpost. Beslan and Its Hostages). The sad title here is self-explanatory. Allenova has been a special correspondent for Kommersant, a newspaper, since 2000.
  • Fyodor Derevyankin: Смерти нет. Краткая история неофициального военного поиска в России (There Is No Death. A Brief History of Unofficial Military Search[es?] in Russia. Based on what Gorky Media writes, this book contains stories of people who rebury soldiers who died during World War 2.
  • Tatyana Zamirovskaya: Земля случайных чисел (The Land of Random Numbers). A collection of (per BGS Literary Agency) metaphysical/fantasy/horror short stories, of which I have read several.
  • Nikolai Kononov: Гимны (Hymns) (excerpt). Apparently a book about memory. Proust strikes again, with a mention in this Kommersant review! (With memory books and Proust references abounding these days – including in This Tilting World, by Colette Fellous, which I read in Sophie Lewis’s translation – I started on Proust a couple months ago and am happily getting ready to finish volume two of In Search of Lost Time, thanks to a slow-reading group on Twitter.)

Up Next: Inga Kuznetsova’s Intervals. And some other good things.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, due to dealings (in a good sense!) with some of the authors, publishers, and agents involved with some of these books; I received electronic copies of two or three.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Yasnaya Polyana Award Winners for 2020

The Yasnaya Polyana Award announced its 2020 winners yesterday at an in-person ceremony in Moscow. I watched chunks of it (two and a half hours was more than a bit much, even for me!) on YouTube; it’s archived here on the Yasnaya Polyana site along with descriptions of each winner.

The winning book in the contemporary prose category was Evgeny Chizhov for Собиратель рая (a title I still can’t decide how best to translate: Collector of Heaven? Collecting Heaven? Perhaps something with “paradise”?). As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a slow-moving, good-natured book about a woman with dementia and her son, a flea market fan. I read about half; Collector felt almost anticlimactic for me after Chizhov’s The Translation (previous post), which I found so much more compelling, lively, and spirited. That’s not to say I don’t understand Collector’s appeal – I most certainly do – but it’s just not my book.

The reader’s choice prize went to Sasha Filipenko for Возвращение в Острог (Return to Ostrog, where “Ostrog” is apparently a toponym; the word means “prison”). Filipenko won 71.5% of the vote; voting was rather theatrically stopped (on a Samsung device since Samsung is the award sponsor) during the ceremony itself. I haven’t yet read Ostrog but am very interested. The reader award runner-up was Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Don’t Feed or Touch the Pelicans, with 8.3% of the vote.

Two other awards were presented. The “event of the year” was Vremya’s publication of a thick collection of works by Oleg Pavlov, who died in 2018; the book is introduced by a series of writers’ remembrances of Pavlov. Last but definitely not least: the foreign literature award, for a translation, went to Alexandra Borisenko and Viktor Sonkin’s translation of Patricia Duncker’s James Miranda Barry for publishing house Sindbad.

Disclaimers & Disclosures: The usual, for being acquainted with some of the writers, translators, publishers, and jurors involved with events and books in this post.

Up Next: Inga Kuznetsova’s Intervals, finally!

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Getting Caught Up: Pandemic-Era Reading Potpourri

Books have been one of my main sources of comfort and calm during these long pandemic months: ordering them to keep a good variety on the shelves, reading them, thinking about them. Feeling more distracted than usual – by the combination of news, horrible circumstances around us, and long hours keeping up with my usual work – initially meant I had a hard time reading at all, later meant I read happily but didn’t retain much, and now seems to mean I do very, very well with books I love but am more eager than ever to set aside books that don’t suck me in. I’ve also been reading more in English than usual, thanks in part to committing, as I mentioned in a previous post, to a very slow reading of In Search of Lost Time. I’m enjoying it a lot, both for the novel and for a commitment that lends stability. I’m glad there’s still nearly a year left.

After all these months (I’m not counting them), my list of thoroughly absorbing Russian books is relatively small – Belyaev’s rather silly Professor Dowell’s Head (previous post), Buksha’s heartfelt Churov and Churbanov (previous post), Inga Kuznetsova’s wondrous Промежуток, which I’ll write about soon, and a couple other books I’ll mention below. The list is short in large part because I haven’t found this year’s Big Book finalists to be overwhelmingly, er, rousing. I’ve been happily reading some upcoming releases, though, and will write more about those later. For now, here’s a bit about some of the books I’ve mentioned in “Up Next” over the pandemic months but haven’t written about (and won't write about) in any great depth.

I feel particularly sorry that Aleksei Polyarinov’s Центр тяжости (The Center of Gravity) fell through the cracks of both my bookshelves and my mind. I recall that I was reading it just as the pandemic was starting to take hold in the U.S. – back then I was planning on a three-day trip to Duke University and considering using the beginning of the novel for a translation workshop – so my reading of The Center of Gravity straddled the before/after line, skewing my reading and fogging my memories considerably. Sometimes, though, foggy outlines speak more to me than sharply focused memories. Polyarinov’s descriptions of childhood are wonderful, with boyish hijinks, a lost lake, and family quirks emerging from the fog as compelling thematic outlines; the second part of the book, which earned it a “cyberpunk” label from some, interested me less, though it’s more distinct and memorable with its descriptions of tyranny and technology, not to mention brotherly differences. I also noted down a few references that speak to the novel’s magpie character: Costa-Gavras’s Missing, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Don Quixote. All in all, my quibbles over things like the slightly hectic blend of genres and references are minor: The Center of Gravity made for entertaining and affecting reading.

I read Alexander Grin’s “Quarantine” in Fandango and Other Stories, translated by Bryan Karetnyk around that same time. “Quarantine” is a short story and short stories spoil easily, so I won’t say much other than that it’s not about medical quarantine, though it is about how solitude and apartness can save a life. The main character may not be a very sympathetic person but Bryan’s translation is lush, lovely, and full of life. I’m looking forward to reading more of Fandango.

One of the biggest disappointments of my early pandemic reading was Ivan Turgenev’s On the Eve, which Wikipedia sums up just fine, thank you, relieving me of the duty. Yes, I finished and yes, I’m glad I’d saved it for a difficult time, though neither Turgenev’s writing nor my reading felt especially inspired, at least if compared to Fathers and Sons, Rudin, or Nest of the Gentry. Then again, On the Eve made for odd pandemic reading: one character falls ill with something that sounded suspiciously COVID-19esque, inspiring marginalia like “sick like COVID-19, ой!” and “evidently not so contagious because all visit” and “symptoms CV-19-ish and linger.” The novel’s highlight is Elena who makes her own decisions and loves nature (including insects and frogs) so much it makes her father jealous.

There are also two books I started some time ago and haven’t yet finished, though I keep working on them after long work days: Aleksandr Stesin’s Нью-йоркский обход (New York Rounds) and Tatyana Pletneva’s Пункт третий (Point Three). New York Rounds is a graceful and almost meditative series of vignettes written by a young doctor working in New York City hospitals. I’m sure my past work as a medical interpreter enhances my appreciation for New York Rounds – I noted “apparent lack of hosp. interps?!” early on – but I also enjoy Stesin’s portrayals of colleagues, snapshots of New York (the sad beauty of the early-morning Bronx), and mentions of literature, which include noting that an audiobook of Proust featured a reader with “a strong Odessa accent.” (This was before I started on ISOLT!) Although I couldn’t bear to read New York Rounds when New York’s COVID-19 cases peaked in the spring, I’ve returned this fall and will keep going. Point Three is an entirely different kind of book: fiction about, well, Soviet dissidents in 1979-1981. Pletneva establishes several plotlines that intersect, offering up very human characters plus a sense of realistic absurdity. And/or absurd realism. This book is also a bit hectic but it’s well-organized. Better yet, given, well, the circumstances, it’s also so vivid – settings include apartments, a courtroom, and a prison camp – that I find it easy to set aside and return to without feeling any loss of continuity. I’m about halfway through and find it almost mysteriously enjoyable.

Up Next: Inga Kuznetsova’s Промежуток, which I confess I may be afraid to write about since I enjoyed it tremendously and don’t want to overanalyze.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I received a review copy of the Grin book from the Russian Library and Bryan is a wonderful friend and colleague; the Russian Library is one of my publishers, too. Since I mentioned that, I’ll add that I have several other Russian Library titles waiting for more attention: Woe from Wit (Griboedov, Hulick), The Nose and Other Stories (Gogol, Fusso), and Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (Radishchev, Kahn/Reyfman). They all look great, though I’m especially looking forward to Radishchev… my fascination with eighteenth-century Russia never left me.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The 2020 NOSE Award Longlist, All of It

This will probably sound a little weird but here goes: Writing NOSE Award longlist posts is one of my favorite acts of blogging. It’s become a habit to list the entire list – this year it’s twenty books – with brief descriptions. Since book discovery is one of the primary reasons I follow prizes so closely and since I’ve found so many good books that hit multiple long- and shortlists but didn’t win major awards, NOSE’s moderate-length longlists are just my thing. Particularly since I generally find NOSE jurors more unpredictable than the juries of other major awards.

A few points about this year’s list, which was announced on the Prokhorov Foundation site, here… The list was selected from 258 nominations. This is a highly varied list. With many books written by women! The shortlist will be announced in early November during public debate. The winner will be announced in early 2021 during public debate. There will also be reader voting (opens on October 15!) as well as a critics’ pick award. But enough of that. Here’s the list, complete, I’m sure, with plenty of title (and content) blunders since there are, as always, plenty of things that are difficult to translate/guess without reading.

  • Shamshad Abdullaev: Другой юг (The Other South). This is Abdullaev’s first book of prose – apparently all of it – and the publisher promises (among other things that I’ll summarize and paraphrase from the description) a hypnotic Central Asian landscape and nonlinear techniques reminiscent of Proust and Beckett. (Do click through on Abdullaev’s name for more on his life and poetry, some of which has been translated.)
  • Olga Allenova: Форпост. Беслан и его заложники (Outpost. Beslan and Its Hostages). The sad title here is self-explanatory. Allenova has been a special correspondent for Kommersant, a newspaper, since 2000.
  • Polina Barskova: Седьмая щелочь: тексты и судьбы блокадных поэтов (The Seventh Alkali [a sort of cleansing wave/wash]: The Texts and Fates of Blockade Poets). This book covers work by Gennady Gor, Pavel Zaltsman, Natalya Krandievskaya, Tatyana Gnedich, Nikolai Tikhonov, Sergei Rudakov, and Zinaida Shishova. The mysterious title (explained here, in Igor Gulin’s review for Kommersant) comes from a poem by Krandievsksya. (I asked Polina for help on the title and she mentioned purification. There may yet be more on this topic…)
  • Maria Buras: Истина существует. Жизнь Андрея Зализняка в рассказах ее участников (Truth Exists. Andrei Zaliznyaka’s Life As Told By Those Involved or somesuch). Zaliznyak, who died in 2017, was a linguist who studied very old literature and documents, including those written on birchbark (!!! This makes me want to learn more!). Buras was his student and friend.
  • Sergei Vereskov: Шесть дней (Six Days). Publisher Eksmo describes Six Days in their foreign rights catalogue with this sentence (among others!): “Young writer Sergey Vereskov has written a novel about mother, although the reader may feel, at certain points, that the book is about romance, travels, childhood and youth.”
  • Christina Guepting: Сестренка (Sis) (excerpt). Part of publisher Eksmo’s description of Sis in their foreign rights materials: “Sis is an acute social drama that highlights the most frightening aspects of life. The topics raised in the book are universal, and the vivid description of remote areas of the Russian North adds colour to this story.” Northern Russia is always a draw for me, too.
  • Andrei Gogolev: Свидетельство (Evidence, perhaps?). Hm, this one is especially mysterious.
  • Alla Gorbunova: Конец света, моя любовь (It’s the End of the World, My Love). Short stories set in the 1990s and 2000s.
  • Nadya Delaland: Рассказы пьяного просода (Stories of a Drunken Prosode/Rhapsode [I so want “prosode” to be a word!]). (excerpt) (Ooh, these titles!) Alexander Chantsev writes (in my paraphrase here!) for the Год литературы site that Delaland’s stories about unexpected dreams and strange changes vary in style and genre.
  • Fyodor Derevyankin: Смерти нет. Краткая история неофициального военного поиска в России (There Is No Death. A Brief History of Unofficial Military Search[es?] in Russia. Based on what Gorky Media writes, this book contains stories of people who rebury soldiers who died during World War 2.
  • Ragim Dzhafarov: Сато (Sato). Apparently the story of a child who thinks he’s being held hostage and is brought to a psychologist.
  • Aleksei Dyachkov: Хани, БАМ (Khani, BAM). Stories set during work on the Baikal-Amur Mainline
  • Tatyana Zamirovskaya: Земля случайных чисел (The Land of Random Numbers). A collection of (per BGS Literary Agency) metaphysical/fantasy/horror short stories, of which I have read several.
  • Nikolai Kononov: Гимны (Hymns) (excerpt). Apparently a book about memory. (Proust strikes again, with a mention in this Kommersant review! (With memory books and Proust references abounding these days – including in This Tilting World, by Colette Fellous, which I recently read in Sophie Lewis’s translation – I started on Proust a month or so ago and am happily reading away on volume two of In Search of Lost Time, thanks to a slow-reading group on Twitter.))
  • Lera Manovich: Рыба плывет (The Fish Is Swimming (I read the story and this version seems to fit)). Stories, allegedly about a Boschesque world; one story is apparently called “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
  • Evgenia Nekrasova: Сестромам (Sistermom) (title story). Short stories, of which I have read (and very much appreciated) several.
  • Valeria Pustovaya: Ода радости (Ode to Joy). Apparently autofiction about loss, love, and giving birth.
  • Vitaly Terletsky (with artist Katya): Собакистан (Dogistan, perhaps, though that’s awfully close to Dagestan…). Comics. Dystopia. Dogs. Colta has a big interview with Terletsky and Katya here, about two of their books.
  • Sasha Filipenko: Возвращение в Острог (Return to Ostrog, where “Ostrog” is apparently a toponym; the word means “prison”) is a welcome surprise: I thought Filipenko’s Hounding, a Big Book finalist a few years ago, was very good (previous post) and have been meaning to read more of his work. This novel is apparently about a town where a prison is the primary institution. Also on this year’s Yasnaya Polyana shortlist.
  • Mikita Franko: Дни нашей жизни (Days of Our Life). A novel about a boy whose life seems typical. But has lots of secrets. The description and even the reader reviews/comments on livelib.ru seem very concerned about spoilage so I didn’t read much about it… though whilst googling around, I found that articles on Days of Our Life often mention LGBT families right up front, including in this interview with the author.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual due to dealings (in a good sense!) with some of the authors, publishers, and agents involved with some of these books; I received electronic copies of two or three.

Up Next: Inga Kuznetsova’s Промежуток plus the long-promised potpourri post, which will likely be written as a pandemic-era reading post.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Yasnaya Polyana Award’s 2020 Shortlist

The Yasnaya Polyana Award jury announced a six-book shortlist yesterday. I can’t say I think this list is especially inspiring or exciting – in large part because many of the titles are familiar from other award lists – though I can’t say I found this year’s YP longlist especially inspiring or exciting, either, for the same reason! Repetition. If you’re interested in jury views, Mikhail Vizel’s piece on the Год литературы site offers bits of commentary from jury members. And so here we go, in Russian alphabetical order by surname:

  • Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Не кормите и не трогайте пеликанов (Don’t Feed or Touch the Pelicans), a novel concerning an urban neurotic who goes to London and gets suck(er?)ed into some sort of real-life (but fictional) detective story, was already a NatsBest shortlister.
  • Sergei Belyakov’s Весна народов (Springtime of the Peoples or Spring of Nations are among the many variants for this title wording [edit]) isn’t concerned with European revolutions in 1848 but rather the Russian Revolution of 1917, which (borrowing from the book’s description) led to the establishment of various governments, including multiple entities in Ukraine. The book’s subtitle mentions Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgakov, and Petlyura.
  • Ksenia Buksha’s Чуров и Чурбанов (Churov and Churbanov) is the only book on the list that I’ve read in full (previous post). It’s very good, a genuine bright spot in this year’s reading: it’s funny, smart, and skillfully constructed. Also a Big Book finalist.
  • Sophia Sinitskaya’s Сияниежеможаха (which, sorry, I’m going to continue calling The “Zhemozhakha” Shining since the title’s more understandable word is the same as the Russian title of a certain Stephen King book) has already hit the NatsBest and Big Book shortlists, too. I still need to return to this one after having gotten stuck (twice!) in the first novella in the book, which is also the first novella in another Sinitskaya book. (!) It’s good, it’s interesting, I love the details and atmosphere… but somehow it just hasn’t held together for me, doesn’t impel me to read.
  • Sasha Filipenko’s Возвращение в Острог (Return to Ostrog, where “Ostrog” is apparently a toponym; the word means “prison”) is a welcome surprise: I thought Filipenko’s Hounding, a Big Book finalist a few years ago, was very good (previous post) and have been meaning to read more of his work. This novel is apparently about a town where a prison is the primary institution.
  • Evgeny Chizhov’s Собиратель рая (Collector of Heaven or Collecting Heaven?), which I read in part and have been known to call “good-natured,” is a slow, meandering novel about a woman with dementia and her son, who loves flea markets. Although it didn’t hit me (particularly after Chizhov’s truly wonderful The Translation), I do understand its appeal.

 

Up Next: Inga Kuznetsova’s Промежуток. Potpourri books still await, and who knows what else might pop up!

 

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, which includes having translated two Yasnaya Polyana jury members’ books and having enjoyed talking with a couple of this year’s award finalists.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Women in Translation, 2020

August may be almost gone but it’s still Women in Translation Month for another day and a half, meaning I’m going to hop to it and write up a rather rambling post with some rather random bits of news about Russian books by women that are on their way to anglophone readers. “Random” really is the word here: this is a pretty nonmethodical (perhaps even slipshod) look at some personal favorites and news, as well as a couple of interesting cases of certain writers who have multiple new translations on the way.

I’ll start with Katherine E. Young’s translation of Anna Starobinets’s Look at Him, which will be out soon from Three String Books, an imprint at Slavica Publishers. I’m mentioning Look at Him first because the book, a memoir of sorts, made such an impression on me when I read it back in 2018 (previous post). Starobinets is particularly known for writing fictional horror stories but here she tells the true story of her own experiences, many of which are utterly horrifying, when she terminated a pregnancy. For more: Svetlana Satchkova’s interview with Starobinets on Punctured Lines.

There seem to be lots of other translations on the way but please note that I have yet to do much work on this year’s new translation list so may be missing some good and very imminent books. That said, the work I have done is more than enough to know that there’s been some significant slippage in publication dates, likely due to the pandemic. So! Among the other books by women that are in progress, we have three books by Maria Stepanova: the poetry collection War of the Beasts and the Animals, translated by Sasha Dugdale and on the way from Bloodaxe Books in March 2021; In Memory of Memory, fiction translated by Sasha Dugdale and published by New Directions (U.S.) and Fitzcarraldo Editions (U.K.) in February 2021; and The Voice Over, a selection of poems and essays edited by Irina Shevelenko that’s scheduled for publication with Russian Library/Columbia University Press in June 2021.

Another big bright spot is the list at Deep Vellum, whose Will Evans told RusTRANS of a slew of books on the way: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s novel Kidnapped: A Crime Story, translated by Marian Schwartz, and The New Adventures of Helen & Other Magical Tales, translated by Jane Bugaeva; an autobiographical novel by Nataliya Meshchaninova translated by Fiona Bell; and Alisa Ganieva’s Offended Sensibilities, translated by *checking on the name*. The RusTRANS blog page also includes a post with a note by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp mentioning that she’s translating one of Yulia Yakovleva’s detective novels; Ruth’s Web site lists the title as Punishment of a Hunter (previous post, where, NB, I used a provisional title); the book is on the way from Pushkin Press in 2021.

For a more historical form of WIT fun, I really love this list of “25 Books by Women in Translation From the Russian Language” on Reading With KT. Yes, I’m very grateful a few of my translations are included and just as glad to see some wonderful translations by colleagues, but I’m especially happy that the list contains two Soviet-era classics that I’ve enjoyed: Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna (previous post) is a book I’ve read several times and would recommend to anyone, and Natalya Baranskaya’s A Week Like Any Other, which I’ve only read once (or maybe twice, once in each language?) but ordered up after reading KT’s post. (Languagehat, by the way, was reading A Week (post here) the same week I read the Reading With KT blog post.) For another list of Russian women writers’ books available in translation, here’s A Russian Affair’s (shorter) list, which includes Banine’s Days in the Caucasus, for Pushkin Press, translated from the French by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova, who also has a note on RusTRANS. (Alas, I just found this book isn’t available in the U.S. until next year.) If I were to add one personal favorite to those two lists, it would be Julia Voznesenskaya’s The Women’s Decameron, which I’ve mentioned a couple times over the years. I read it first in W.B. Linton’s translation, then again in Russian. I bought a copy in Moscow but, another alas here: the box containing that book got lost somewhere between Moscow and Maine. I’d love to think someone swiped the box solely because the Voznesenskaya book was in there.

Finally, on a more personal note, it’s been a nice year for translations of women! Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell From the Sky, which I translated for Oneworld Publications, was published and made the Read Russia Prize (anglophone!) longlist. It was also the March book club selection on Asymptote.com; I answered some fun interview questions for Asymptote’s Josefina Massot, here. I’m currently translating Maria Galina’s Autochthons (previous post), which never let me go over the years – it’s the perfect puzzling book to translate in this strange time; the translation is for Russian Library/Columbia University Press. In other good news, my translation of Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha made the shortlists of the EBRD Literary Prize and the Read Russia Prize (anglophone again!). Turning to potential future translations: I translated excerpts of two novels written by women: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik (previous post) and Daria Desombre’s The Birdcatcher, which I haven’t posted about but enjoyed very much and then came to love even more when I translated excerpts: not only did it draw on my BFF feelings for War and Peace, it reminded me of studying eighteenth-century Russian literature, particularly sentimentalism. The Birdcatcher is a historical crime novel (with elements of coming-of-age blended in) set in Russia during the War of 1812 and it features a young Russian woman whose family’s rural estate ends up housing French officers. Desombre has also written contemporary detective novels featuring a young woman, Masha Karavai: Shelley Fairweather-Vega translated The Sin Collector for Amazon Crossing. I read another Masha Karavai book early on in the pandemic and found it good light reading that actually keep me reading (I was having a lot of trouble reading at the time), though it made me very wistful about missing Moscow. On another note, a more Petersburg note, it’s a wonderful plus that one of the best books I’ve read this year is Ksenia Buksha’s Churov and Churbanov (previous post); Anne O. Fisher translated a chunk that’s available here. Which leads me to another book written by a woman…

Up Next: Inga Kuznetsova’s Промежуток, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is up next. I’m not sure what will come after that since I’m reading two books, one printed, the other electronic. We’ll see which I finish first!

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual, particularly knowing some of the translators, writers, and publishers mentioned in this post.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

2020 NatsBest Goes to Elizarov’s Earth

Yesterday the National Bestseller Award went to Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth) (previous post), a very long and often very funny book about death and the funeral industry. Earth had two votes. Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina’s Уран (Uranium) and Sofia Sinitskaya’s Сияние “жеможаха” (the one with the tricky title that I kind of like calling The “Zhemozhakha” Shining since the title’s other word is the same as the Russian title of a certain Stephen King book) each had one vote.

For a bit more, see this post from Год литературы.

Up Next: Potpourri, Inga Kuznetsova’s Промежуток.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I received a copy of Earth from BGS Literary Agency and have translated excerpts from the novel.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Mad Scientists & Talking Heads: Belyaev’s Professor Dowell’s Head

Alexander Belyaev’s Голова профессора Доуэля (known as Professor Dowell’s Head in Antonina W. Bouis’s English translation) made for some perfect retro – it was written in 1925 – reading during this bizarre pandemic summer. In my last post, I wrote in my “Up Next” section that my reading preference is “the odder the better right about now” so a book about live, talking heads separated from their bodies was just the thing.

Александр Беляев Голова профессора Доуэля russian book Alexander ...
Eek!
And so. Professor Dowell’s Head focuses on two mad scientists. The mad scientist in the title, professor Dowell, is mad because he’s angry at his former colleague, professor Kern. Kern is a mad scientist who fits neatly into this wonderfully concise stock character definition on Wikipedia. Kern’s “unusual or unsettling personality traits” emerge right at the start of the novel, when he hires a young medical professional, Marie Laurent, to work in his Paris lab. He asks her if she can keep quiet. Kern then accuses beautiful women of having double the usual female deficiencies (like, oh, chattiness) and wants to know if Laurent’s nerves are in order.

It’s clear from the start that Marie will need strong nerves to work with Kern: she’s quickly shown a lab where a live human head is installed on a stand. That head belongs to none other than Dowell, who will soon tell Laurent how his head ended up in Kern’s lab. Professional, professorial jealousy, not to mention crime, comes into this, revealing some of Kern’s “unusual or unsettling personality traits” that fit with mad scientistdom. Laurent’s nerves do indeed suffer from what she learns, particularly since she’s far more sympathetic to mad-angry Dowell than mad-insane Kern. Kern will find and install two more heads in his lab, even attaching one to a body he finds at the morgue. Other characters (including professor Dowell’s son and one of his friends) enter the novel, too, though I’ll skip the details to prevent spoilage for future readers.

Professor Dowell’s Head combines science fiction and adventure, and is enough of a classic that it’s noted in A History of Russian Literature, which mentions that the book involves one of Belyaev’s “plots in which the human subject gains immortality and forfeits the body.” I certainly can’t argue with that and shudder a bit on a ninety-degree day as I confess that this is something I think about. Belyaev’s characters and plot turns are straightforward but he sets them up for maximum effect, establishing dualities – two scientists, mind and flesh, ethical and unethical behavior – so his characters can contemplate questions about what it means to be human.

Reading Professor Dowell’s Head during these pandemic months felt particularly striking. That’s likely because I’m so content with home-based social distancing, something some people apparently find about as appealing as preserving severed heads in a lab. I can’t say I’d want that fate myself, but I’m not at all bored at home, though of course all of me is still here. There are books to read, cats and humans to feed, vegetables to harvest, and hundreds of pages to translate. Dowell may not be especially happy in Kern’s lab but he’s far better off than the other two heads, who aren’t nearly as suited as Dowell to an existence that’s completely about the mind, not the body. Professor Dowell’s Head is relatively easy reading with a fairly quick-moving plot that’s appropriately peculiar for our odd times. Professor Dowell’s Head isn’t nearly as masterful as, say, Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, which is also dated 1925, also involves strange medical experimentation, and is (so far) my favorite Bulgakov. Even so, Professor Dowell’s Head is a solid page-turning novel that readers (including young adults) might enjoy discussing during this pandemic summer – both the novel and the pandemic raise plenty of questions about life and science.

Up next: Potpourri! Or maybe something else?

Disclaimers and disclosures: Only that translator Nina Bouis is a wonderful friend and colleague. I didn’t realize until writing this post that she translated the book!

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Big Book 2: Buksha’s Heartfelt Churov and Churbanov

Ksenia Buksha’s Чуров и Чурбанов (Churov and Churbanov) is the first Russian book I’ve read and really, truly enjoyed on multiple levels during this whole bleak quarantine season. Churov and Churbanov captured me so much that I a) wanted to begin rereading as soon as I finished but b) don’t particularly feel like writing about it, lest I break the novel’s spell. I will tread lightly.

Churov and Churbanov is both comforting and disquieting, telling the story of two schoolmates who grow up in the 1990s and take (mostly) divergent paths in life. Churov becomes a cardiologist and a family man. Churbanov becomes, hm, a businessman. They live in St. Petersburg: the novel’s description refers to the “Petersburg atmosphere” and I must say that I cannot picture the book taking place anywhere else, perhaps because of certain slightly mystical, mysterious, and grotesque elements. Buksha works mentions of Santa Barbara, giant icicles, George Soros, and a grocery list with chicken hearts into her chapters. There is naturalism (the period’s crime) and there is empathy and love (family life).

She writes some beautiful scenes. In one, Churov videos his dog as they walk along railroad ties; he later shows the clip to juvenile patients to entice them to open their mouths at appointments. In another, after sustaining some injuries in a fight, Churbanov goes to the frozen Neva, sits on the snow, and drinks vodka and eats sausage as the sun sets and snow falls.

One of the elements that draws the book’s vignette-like chapters into a novel is the heart. There’s a bread factory (with a giant mixer!) that’s the heart of the city, there are those chicken hearts, and there’s a geography teacher who claims to remember students with her heart, though she confuses Churov and Churbanov. There is also the oddity that Churov and Churbanov, who are opposite in most respects, have synchronized hearts, a phenomenon that becomes a strange, almost utopian, fixation since it’s seen as having curative potential. Synchronization is banned because of instant simultaneous death of an entire synchronized group if one member dies.

The true miracle of Churov and Churbanov lies in Buksha’s telling. The pacing is perfect, she offers just the right level of detail, and the book has lots of heart and soul. As well as comfort and disquiet. The book’s formal success alone is refreshing but there’s something about the novel’s combination of light and dark – here I’m recalling scenes, like the bread factory’s constantly glowing windows and Churbanov’s sunset on the river as well as figurative, character- and plot-based light and dark – that appealed to both my head and my heart. It’s a very satisfying book.

Up next: Potpourri. Alexander Belyaev’s Professor Dowell’s Head, science fiction from 1925. The odder the better right about now.

Disclaimers and disclosures. The usual. This is the second of this year’s Big Book finalists that I’ve read in full; I received an electronic copy but read a previously purchased printed copy.