Showing posts with label Marina Stepnova. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Marina Stepnova. Show all posts

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Moscow Trip Report: Book Fair, Kongress, and Miscellany

My trip to Moscow last month turned out to be even more packed with events, meetings, and, of course, books than I’d expected… I’ll just get right to it with a few highlights…

With visible soft sign.
Andrei Platonov. I visited Andrei Platonov’s grave at the Armenian Cemetery on my first full day in Moscow: I wasn’t quite sure where to find Platonov and had to ask several people before a helpful security guard and his friend (who’d never heard of Platonov and grilled me about what to read) led me to Platonov’s grave. I would certainly have found it without the guard: two people were celebrating Platonov’s life, graveside, with vodka and a book. There’s something a bit odd about Platonov’s gravestone: at certain times, depending on the sun’s angle, the soft sign at the end of the word писатель (writer) seems to disappear. I noticed it was missing as we stood, talking, and everyone assured me it existed… and it did reappear a while later. Platonov turned up again, in the form of a book of his letters, published in 2013 by Elena Shubina’s imprint at AST: writer Vladimir Sharov very kindly gave me his extra copy and it’s a nice, heavy book with lots of photos, footnotes, and a lengthy introduction by Natalya Kornienko. For more: EricNaiman’s review in The Times LiterarySupplement complements positive comments I heard from a writer friend.

The Congress of Literary Translators. The main reason I went to Moscow was the Congress of Literary Translators, hosted by the Institute of [Literary] Translation at the Library of Foreign Literature. Each attendee presents a brief paper within a small “section”: with over 200 attendees from 55 countries, there were nine simultaneous sections. That might sound like a madhouse but everything seems to work itself out. Scheduling conflicts meant I missed a few talks I wanted to hear, but each section I attended magically worked out to a manageable size that allowed dialogue. I’ve come to appreciate the short presentations, too: at first it felt difficult to come up with something meaningful and brief but I now think of the mini-papers as executive summaries or micro-length case studies of current work… My paper addressed usage and translation of old language in contemporary fiction, drawing on my work on Marina Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus, Vladislav Otroshenko’s Addendum to a Photo Album, and Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Laurus. I spoke most about Laurus since I could offer a method for my handling of old Russian words: I have a raft of reference materials but find it particularly useful to compare Bible translations (the Elizabeth and Tyndale translations) on the STEP Bible site from Tyndale House at the University of Cambridge. One of the high points of my Kongress was the chance to speak with Vodolazkin about Laurus—particularly that old language—and my translation. During a joint evening session with Valerii Popov, Vodolazkin, who’s a scholar of Russian medieval literature at Pushkin House, mentioned that he had to get away from the philological before he could write the book: he didn’t want to write a professory book. And he didn’t which is why, I think, his medieval setting and occasional archaisms work so well, so organically… As for other papers, I particularly enjoyed Christine Mestre’s talk about translating dialogue in Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina’s The Little Man: Christine mentioned topics including mistakes in characters’ speech and handling details on what people do as they speak. The Little Man is one of the books I brought home so I’ll be watching for those elements. A few other papers of interest: Margherita Crepax on enriching language through translation; Oliver Ready on his translation of Vladimir Sharov’s Before & During, which I’d just read; and Kristina Rotkirch on Margarita Khemlin.

The Moscow International Book Fair. I made two trips to the book fair this year: beyond more opportunities to buy books and hear presentations, the weather was so nice I was more than happy to make the trip twice and do more walking between the Metro and the pavilion at VDNKh where the book fair is held! My biggest book fair highlight was probably hearing Marina Stepnova speak and then meeting her when I asked her to sign a copy of her new novel, Безбожный переулок, known in English as Italian Lessons, about a Moscow doctor and, well, freedom. Another highlight: meeting, by chance, Viktor Remizov, author of Воля вольная, known in English as Ashes and Dust, which I’m reading now. Remizov’s book looks at freedom, too, but from a completely different angle: through hunters and fishermen in the Russian Far East. They’re an odd pair to read one after the other but both are very good. I also bought Tatyana Tolstaya’s collection Легкие миры. Among other things…

All Those Other Books. It’s obvious from the photo why my checked baggage was overweight this time! Fortunately, all I had to do to avoid charges was pull out the copy of Sofia Lubensk(a)y(a)’s idiom/phraseology dictionary and stick it in my (wheeled) carry-on bag. This isn’t the updated 2014 edition of Lubensky’s Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms but, at 500 rubles, the 2004 edition is easy on the budget. As is the new Ozhegov dictionary I bought in the cheap-paper edition to save space and weight—it has 43,000 more words than my (very!) old Ozhegov but takes up less than half the space. My new dictionary of Russian Orthodox terms (for children!) is very helpful in translating Laurus, as is the “almanac” Текст и традиция (Text and Tradition), which Vodolazkin gave me: it includes his very engaging article about medieval writing and contemporary literature. And then there’s an anthology of Russian translations of contemporary Georgian poetry, compiled by poets Maxim Amelin and Shota Iatashvili, both of whom were at the Kongress… I loved hearing various translators read some of the poems at an evening presentation, particularly since I knew next to nothing about contemporary Georgian poetry before meeting Shota. I also brought back a few “thick” journals that I bought at the book fair: the woman at the thick journal booth particularly recommended a few specific novels (she even threw in a free issue so I could finish one of them!) so I bought those issues and then, of course, started by randomly reading articles and reviews. I wish it were more practical/reliable to subscribe to a journal or two. As for the other books in the photo, it’s hard to pick favorites but I’m particularly looking forward to Zakhar Prilepin’s The Cloister, which many people recommended, Aleksei Nikitin’s Victory Park, and Aleksei Tolstoy’s Engineer Garin’s Hyperboloid, which I’ve always wanted to read, if only because of the word “hyperboloid.”

Disclaimers & Disclosures: The usual. I work on occasional projects for the Institute of Translation, which subsidized many of my travel expenses, and Read Russia. Many of the books in the photo were gifts. Thank you!

Up Next. Yasnaya Polyana Award winners on Tuesday. Then books galore… After something of a summer slump, I’ve been having a great reading run, starting with Evgeny Vodolazkin’s first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, and followed by Marina Stepnova’s latest book, Italian Lessons and Viktor Remizov’s Ashes and Dust. There’s also a bunch of books I’ve been reading in English. I’m glad to have lots of books waiting for posts: after Ashes and Dust, my next Russian-language book will likely be Zakhar Prilepin’s rather long (okay, very long) The Cloister, which has relatively small print, too, meaning it will take some time.

Image Credit. Platonov’s grave photo by Andranikpasha, through Wikipedia Commons.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Women in Translation Month: Some Contemporary Russian Reading Ideas

When the blogger known as Biblibio invited me to write a guest post for Women in Translation Month—it’s right now, this August—I was quick to agree to write something for both our blogs. For one thing, I’ve been enjoying Biblibio’s posts for years. For another, I knew it would be easy to put together a list of wonderful female Russian writers; I’ve even translated a book and two stories by a couple of them. Best of all, it’s always fun to make lists like this by remembering good books and the people who write them. Here are some of my favorites.

Margarita Khemlin is one of my very favorite writers, both because I love her books and stories, and because she’s one of the first writers I chose to translate. I started reading Khemlin with her first book, the story collection The Living Line, and moved on to her novels—Klotsvog, Krainii (The Endman), and The Investigator—reading each as soon as I could after it was published. Margarita’s stories and novels are generally about life in eastern Ukraine, and I particularly love the language she uses to tell, with quiet but dark humor and occasional dialogue in surzhik, a combination of Ukrainian and Russian, about Jewish heritage and the never-ending effects of World War 2. I’ve published translations of two of Margarita’s stories from The Living Line: “Basya Solomonovna’s Third World War” appeared in Two Lines (the “Counterfeits” edition, 2011) and was reprinted in the Read Russia! anthology, too (PDF download); “Shady Business” came out in issue 17 of Subtropics earlier this year. “Shady Business” took me forever: I knew the words (and got great help from Misha Klimov, a local colleague, on the ones I didn’t, those being the surzhik) but wanted to be sure I was capturing the emotions of elderly characters who’d survived the war. I still can’t believe how much feeling and history Margarita can pack into so few, seemingly simple, words. I’m sure that’s why I love her writing so much.

Marina Stepnova’s novel The Women of Lazarus also looks at history, through an unconventional family saga that begins just after the Russian Revolution and continues to the present, focusing on various women in the life of Lazar Lindt, the Lazarus in the title. I loved the novel’s combination of history, various forms of poshlost’, postmodernism, and cultural commentary when I read it but didn’t truly appreciate how much Stepnova had achieved until I was working on a late draft of my translation. (The many, many levels of new-found appreciation I find through translation are a big reason I love translating so much.) Stepnova, a literary magpie, fills her novel with colorful and changeable language, historical perspectives and figures (Beria has a cameo), Soviet science, references to pre-revolutionary cookery, and ballet. Among other things. But everything comes together, creating an almost ridiculously readable and comprehensive novel about the meaning of family and the meaning of country and culture and heritage. Among other things… it’s a very rewarding book that can be read on many levels.

Alisa Ganieva won notice by winning the Debut Prize for the novella Salam, Dalgat!, which she wrote under the male pseudonym Gulla Khirachev because of taboos against a woman writing about a world that is “absolutely male.” I loved Salam, Dalgat! for its story of a day in the life of a man searching Makhachkala, Dagestan, for a relative. As I wrote earlier, “With its mixture of humor, tradition (wife stealing even gets a mention, though a character says that’s a Chechen habit), and a sense of alarm about the future, Salam, Dalgat! felt unusually energetic and organic, all as poor Dalgat, seeking but never quite managing to find, trots along, a perfectly agreeable, generally patient, nearly blank slate of a character, the ideal figure for a reader like me, who’s never been to Makhachkala, to follow.” Translations of Ganieva’s writing are available and on the way: Nicholas Allen’s translation of Salam, Dalgat! appears in the anthology Squaring the Circle (Glas, 2011), Marian Schwartz’s translation of the story “Shaitans” is in the Read Russia! anthology (PDF download), and Carol Apollonio’s translation of The Russian Wall (Праздничная гора) will be published next summer by Deep Vellum.

Since I’ve been so chatty about the first three writers, I’ll keep things shorter and limit myself to brief notes on four more writers I’ve especially enjoyed reading. Each has a story in the same Read Russia! anthology I mentioned above and each has at least one novel already out in English translation… I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Ludmila Ulitskaya and think my favorite is probably Sincerely Yours, Shurik, which has never been translated into English. Of those that exist in English, I particularly enjoyed the polyphonic Daniel Stein, Interpreter, (which Arch Tate translated for The Overlook Press) about a Polish Jew who works for a Nazi officer and dies a Carmelite monk in Israel. The Big Green Tent is on the way, too, in Bela Shayevich’s translation… And then there’s Olga Slavnikova, whose 2017—beautifully stuffed with gems, metaphors, and plot lines—won the Russian Booker. I particularly enjoyed the expedition scenes and carnivalistic episodes; Marian Schwartz translated 2017 for The Overlook Press… Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets appealed to me because of the voice Galina creates for her narrator, a man who rewrites books (e.g. a classic by Joseph Conrad) by incorporating clients into the plot lines. Though Mole Crickets hasn’t been translated, Amanda Love Darragh won the Rossica Prize for translating Galina’s Гиви и Шендерович, as Iramifications, published in 2008 by Glas… Finally, there’s Anna Starobinets, whose Sanctuary 3/9 kept me up late at night: the novel’s combination of folk tale motifs, suspense, and creepiness is perfect. Sanctuary hasn’t been translated into English but three other Starobinets books have: An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin for Hesperus; The Living, translated by James Rann for Hesperus; and The Icarus Gland, coming this fall from James Rann and Skyscraper Publications.

Happy reading! And a big, huge thanks to Biblibio for the invitation... and all this month’s posts about books written by women.

Disclaimers: I’ve translated work by some of the writers mentioned in this post and met all of them, if only briefly. I work on occasional projects for Read Russia and have translated a book for Glas: appropriately enough, it’s Russian Drama: Four Young Female Voices, with four very diverse plays by Yaroslava Pulinovich, Ksenia Stepanycheva, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, and Olga Rimsha.

Up Next: Evgenii Chizhov’s Перевод с подстрочника (literally Translation from a Literal Translation), which I’ve finally finished. And which I already miss. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even slowing down a little in the last sections because I didn’t want it to end. Several books read in English, including a wonderful Dovlatov translation.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: S Is Splendid


The Russian letter С—S in the Roman alphabet—is a bit of a traffic jam for good writers. Though I don’t seem to have any S-starting favorites that I’d defend to the last letter, there are lots and lots of writers I’ve read in moderation and enjoyed enough that I look forward to reading more of their work. I’ll list some of them here. NB: I’ll address the letters Ш and Щ, which transliterate as sh and shch, later in their own posts.


Saltykov-Shchedrin
Classics first, where Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Господа Головлёвы (The Golovlyov Family or The Golovlyovs) is one of the most supremely painful and masterfully claustrophobic books about family I’ve ever read. It was almost physically difficult to read. Highly recommended! Then there’s Fedor Sologub, whose Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon) I’ve enjoyed twice, first in translation, later in Russian. It’s a wonderfully fun and diabolical symbolist novel (previous post) with characters who enjoy, among other things, tearing at wallpaper. I also remember enjoying some of Sologub’s poetry in grad school.

As for contemporary writers, there are so many S scribes I’m not sure where to start. Roman Senchin comes first, I think: everything I wrote above about The Golovlyovs applies to Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs (previous post), a novel about a family that moves to a village from a regional center. Senchin’s The Information, about a young superfluous man in Moscow, is also painful and claustrophobic, good in a different way even if it takes some time to engage with. Then there’s Marina Stepnova, whose Lazar’s Women (previous post), a family saga with twists of пошлость (poshlost’) and postmodernism, was a finalist for last year’s major awards, winning two third prizes from Big Book. I’ve also enjoyed some of Stepnova’s short stories and am looking forward to her Surgeon.

Though it feels strange, I have to acknowledge Vladimir Sorokin, whom I’ve come to appreciate, though we got off to a bad start with Ice not long after I start writing the blog (previous post). I pretty much swore then that I wouldn’t read more of the Ice trilogy… but I broke down and read the next book, Bro, (previous post) and am now even curious about the third. As I wrote at the end of my post on Bro, “It’s taken me a few years and a few books to edge into Sorokin’s world.” My favorite Sorokin book is A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik (previous post), a short novel that describes a future Russia that feels rather like the Middle Ages.

I’ve enjoyed lots more books by S-starting writers, from Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (previous post) to Aleksandr Snegirev’s Vanity (previous post) and Petroleum Venus (previous post)… and I have lots more books by writers with names beginning in S on my shelves, notably from the Brothers Strugatsky, whose world I have yet to find a way to edge into. As always, I’m open to reading ideas.

Compass Translation Award Announcement: For all you poetry translators out there, the Compass Translation Award has extended its 2013 deadline for entries to July 15. This year’s poet for translation is Maria Petrovykh. Information about the award is here. If you’re as unfamiliar with Petrovykh as I, Wikipedia can help, thanks to Languagehat, who wrote the Petrovykh entry after enjoying reading her work.

Disclaimers: The usual, for writers and agents. I’ve translated a Senchin story and excerpts from The Yeltyshevs.

Up Next: A trip report about the Translators’ Coven in Oxford and poetry translation events in London. And I’m finally reading Maya Kucherskaya’s Тётя Мотя, which literary agency Elkost is calling Auntie Mina. I loaded Auntie on the Nook for my trip but already started reading: I’m finding it perfect for my scattered frame of mind because it’s an old-fashioned long novel focusing on characters and their situations in life. That feels soothing right now, with so much going on.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Marina Stepnova’s Lazar Lindt and All His Women

Marina Stepnova’s Женщины Лазаря (Lazar’s Women) is one of “those” books: in this case, “those” books are the ones that compel me just a touch more than they repel me. Oddly, for this reader, “those” books have a tendency to be novels where form and content are absolutely inseparable (a big plus) and books that inexplicably leave me with painfully unforgettable scenes and atmospheres (an even bigger plus).

Moving on to the specifics…

Lazar’s Women, which is billed as a family saga, begins in the early twentieth century and continues to the present. And, yes, it truly is a family saga: each of the women—Marusya, Galina Petrovna, and Lidochka—that the title encompasses occupies, with some overlap, a specific historical period, and each (sort of) has her own place in the life of one Lazar Lindt. In my reading, Lindt is almost an incidental character, first feeling unrequited love for Marusya (his mentor’s wife) because of her welcoming home, then marrying the all-too-young Galina Petrovna and cosseting her in Soviet-era ways, and finally serving as a mythical figure in the life of his granddaughter, Lidochka, whose mother drowns in the book’s first chapter, leaving her to be raised by Galina Petrovna, now a rather cold widow.

The plot summary sounds pretty typical and trite, even (or particularly?) when you add in Lazar’s role as a mathematician who works on a bomb—Lazar is a creator and a destroyer all rolled into one, living in a remote scientist city with the mathematical-sounding name Ensk—so it’s Stepnova’s treatment of her material that gives the book its interest. I read the first hundred or so pages of Lazar’s Women thinking (as I still do) the novel is overwritten, overloaded, and overwrought… but then I grasped the book’s logic and began reading it as an allegorical, abstract representation of history, love, nonlove, and the effects of Soviet life on the psyche that demands all Stepnova’s literary “stuff.”

In her review for Izvestia, Liza Novikova likened Lazar’s Women to books by Liudmila Ulitskaya and Dina Rubina—and I completely agree with Novikova, who cites themes and devices that Stepnova handles differently, almost rebuking her schoolmarmish elders—but I found myself thinking even more of Vasily Aksyonov’s trilogy that’s known as Generations of Winter in English and Московская сага (Moscow Saga) in Russian. I disliked, almost intensely, the trilogy but couldn’t put it down. And I still can’t forget Aksyonov’s portrayals of the Soviet era’s perversion of life and love. Lazar’s Women had a similar effect on me, partly because it also dissects various types of perversion, but I think Stepnova’s book is better composed—compiled might be an even better word—than Aksyonov’s. For one thing, Stepnova uses her magpie techniques to offer all manner of tchotchkes, emotions, and accessories but Aksyonov uses his in what I consider a cheaper way, stuffing in cameo roles for historical figures, including Stalin. Stepnova’s book is also far more affecting in its affectedness: the book is even something of a tearjerker in spots. I fogged up more than once, and one male reader told me he cried.

I think critic Viktor Toporov’s description of Lazar’s Women as высокое чтиво is perfect: my English-language version of that would be “high-class pulp” because I read Lazar’s Women as a piece of very readable postmodernism that offers traditional alongside trashy. Stepnova combines elements and specifics like high class Soviet-era privileges, low-class words related to the body, a bathroom scene involving a smoking ballerina, the flexible saga genre, and a first-person narrator with an identity and a very distinctive voice but only (apparently) a cryptically tangential presence to the actual story.

Early in the book, though, that narrator tells doubting readers to check Yandex, a Russian search engine, if s/he doesn’t believe the facts in one part of the novel. Zakhar Prilepin criticizes the mention of Yandex in his review (which I read in Prilepin’s Книгочет), but I think he’s reading too literally and missing the point. Prilepin says (in my translation), “People write books about what Yandex doesn’t know and will never know,” adding that it doesn’t matter if we believe (my italics) what’s in a book or not. Okay, sure, fiction addresses mysteries of life that a search engine’s algorithms can’t grasp. I found the Yandex advice a bit puzzling at first but the further I read Lazar’s Women, the more I read the mention of Yandex as a a mysterious narrator’s reminder of the hierarchies and interdependencies of fact and fiction… that isn’t so far off from the novel’s portrayals of hierarchies within Soviet and post-Soviet society, which Stepnova inserts into a work of fiction that manages to feel simultaneously historical and anti-historical.

So, yes, Lazar’s Women irritated the hell out of me with its diminutives, barfing, and ballet. And, no, it’s not a gentle or genteel family saga. But that’s probably why the book works so well, why it feels a little unusual and important, and why it’s been shortlisted for this year’s NatsBest, Yasnaya Polyana, Big Book, and Russian Booker awards. It didn’t win the first two, and I haven’t read all the Big Book and Booker finalists, but Lazar’s Women is a very good book, a book I can’t help but respect—IMHO, respect > liking, when it comes to books—so I’d be more than happy if Stepnova won either award.

Up Next: Trip report from the American Literary Translators Association conference, Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and Andrei Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager, which I’m enjoying very much, though it’s a bit of a shock to the system after the historical abstraction and brutal dreaminess of, respectively, Lazar and Voroshilovgrad.

Disclaimers: The usual.