Monday, November 11, 2019

Girls Gone Missing: Kozlova’s Rurik and Barinova’s Eve

Where to start? The basics, I suppose: Anna Kozlova’s Рюрик (Rurik) and Liubov Barinova’s Ева (Eve) are both books about young women who disappear, one forever, the other for a hiatus of sorts. Both novels are also described by some readers (and/or publicists!) as thrillers, though after corresponding with a Russian colleague a bit about Eve, I suppose something like “psychological dramas” is probably more apt. Sometimes I think “thriller” puts too much pressure on a book to be a page-turner that has to be read in one sitting. Not that that’s an option for me, given how slowly I read Russian, but Rurik and Eve kept me up at night because I wanted to find out what happened to Marta (in Rurik), Eve (in Eve), and their family members.

Despite the common element of suspense and missing women, the books couldn’t be more different in terms of plot, atmosphere, and tone. I’ve described Rurik as “edgy” (on the first page, there’s mention of how people “пьют, ссут и блюют” – “drink, piss, and puke” – on local trains: the three words transliterate as pyut, ssut, blyuyut, which sounds great but obviously smells awful) with plenty of drinking, sex, a parrot named Rurik, motorcycle riding, and a weird and horrid death. Rurik has tons of verve and a bit of grit, too; it’s both wise and wiseass. It’s a very here-and-now novel examining social mores and wealth (the motorcycle is a BMW, for example, and there’s overseas vacationing) while also depicting the role of the media and Internet in modern life after Marta, a teenager who’s vanished, hitches a ride north with a motorcyclist. She later escapes him (going into the woods, ah, favorite Russian motif!), too, giving two reasons for suspense: a) finding out why she fled the first time and b) wondering if she’ll survive the forest. (Where I was glad there were good insect mentions.) The cast also includes a very modern journalist, a woman who figures everything out, and (of course) there’s a dysfunctional family background.

As there is in Eve: Eve and her brother Herman live with their cold army officer of a father who first has a soldier nanny them – when they go with the soldier into the forest (the forest again!) to cut a holiday tree, Herman’s foot is severely injured by a trap – but then hands them over to their grandmother for care. As an adult, Eve is killed and then, as payback, Herman kidnaps her killers’ daughter and raises her by himself. Told in two timelines, the main source of suspense for me in Eve was in learning how Eve died, finding out Herman’s deep-seated motivations, and seeing what consequences he might face. Meaning: Will he eventually be caught? And why were Eve and Herman so close? Barinova’s writing and plotting are pretty traditional and with Eve’s overall slice of time covering the late Soviet period until the present day, it has a grayer feel, in part because Herman, who becomes a doctor, can’t afford a BMW or overseas travel but also because the novel itself is quieter than Rurik, which felt pretty raucous in many ways. Eve is just plain bleak, though not so bleak that I’d call it chernukha, the dark, dark brand of realism I used to read so much of.

Neither Eve nor Rurik is perfect – both suffer from overly long passages in the middle (thankfully, though, there are no big muddles in the middle) and I thought the feel of much of Eve’s denouement departed too much from the textual logic of everything that preceded it, though the very, very end felt fitting – but, as I’ve mentioned, both books kept me up late, happily reading and wanting to know what would happen next, as decent psychological-dramas-that-verge-on-thrillerdom should. Having relatively recently read Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which I had to ration out to myself; Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, which I devoured in one evening (in Sam Taylor’s smooth translation); and the beginning of Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, which is currently keeping me plodding noirishly on the treadmill, I think it’s safe to say I love novels that play with literary and genre norms, blending suspense and, yes, psychological drama with social issues like loneliness, alcoholism, and class while also straddling the (artificial) boundaries between the (artificial) lands of genre fiction and literary fiction.

Rurik and Eve are similar to those books I read in English: there are broken families and broken social fabrics that essentially generate orphandom in and around transitional times for contemporary Russia, meaning the two books describe personal and social issues while also playing a little with literary and genre norms. Best of all, they’re part of a growing pile of books by youngish writers (Eve is Barinova’s debut) who aren’t afraid to blend – particularly in Kozlova’s case – everything from bits of mysticism and folklore to social commentary and crime. I think I was especially grateful to read two new releases that are so focused on the present-day and late Soviet period rather than the first half of the twentieth century. And to appreciate Kozlova’s sassy delivery, acidic irony, and 18+ content as well as Barinova’s calm, almost plodding and meditative restraint. My biggest regret is that Rurik didn’t make any award shortlists: even with the slight sagginess I mentioned, Rurik feels better composed and more relevant (and interesting!) than some of this year’s other Big Book finalists. I have to wonder if the juries choosing finalists didn’t much admire the edginess and sassiness I so happily lapped up.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received an electronic copy of Eve from Barinova’s literary agency BGS, for whom I have translated a few brief excerpts of Eve. I bought my copy of Rurik, which a friend brought to me from Moscow. I do want to mention how nice this Phantom Press edition is, thanks to Andrei Bondarenko’s sleek design (which both looked nice and made the text especially reader-friendly for tired end-of-the-day eyes) and thick, creamy paper. Bondarenko’s designs always have nice touches: Alisa Ganieva’s long biography of Lilya Brik (published by Molodaya Gvardia, which opted for nice paper, too) was also especially easy on the eyes, both in terms of aesthetics and ease of reading, thanks to Bondarenko’s body text format and graphic elements. Good book design matters.

Up Next: The two books in English I keep promising, Ganieva’s Lilya Brik biography, a biography of Venedikt Yerofeyev, and Evgeny Chizhov’s new book about nostalgia and memory, which I just started.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

2019-2020 NOS(E) Award Shortlists

I so utterly forgot that the NOS(E) Award shortlists would be announced on Halloween – “are they trick or are they treat?” really is the question, I suppose – that I thought a lot about Anna Kozlova’s Rurik and Liubov Barinova’s Eve all week because I’d intended to write about them. I’ll keep thinking (and saving) those thoughts for next week.

As was the case last season, NOS(E) will award two prizes in early 2020: one named by what I think of as the regular jury (members listed here; their shortlist is here) and the other determined by the critical academy (members listed here; their shortlist is here). Both this season’s lists are a bit short on books that sounded particularly appealing to me (e.g. Nikitin’s Про папу, About Papa, the book that’s supposed to make people happy, didn’t make it, meaning I now feel even more driven to read it and determine its joy factor…) and there aren’t many women on either list. (Not that three out of sixteen for the longlist is very good, it’s pretty awful and it really makes me wonder what was nominated.) Plus there’s the usual mishmash of disparate genres, but, well, who am I to complain about that? If I want to like absolutely all of an award’s rules and practices, plus know what books were nominated, I’d have to invent my own award. Hm.

On that all too quixotic note, here are four books that made both lists:
  • Nikolai Kononov: Восстание (Uprising) is a “documentary novel” apparently inspired by the life of Sergei Solovyov, one of the organizers of the Norilsk camp uprising. It’s on my shelf.
  • Aleksandr Dolinin: Комментарий к роману Владимира Набокова Дар(Commentary on Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel The Gift) is apparently exactly what the title says it is. (Sample)
  • Alexander Stesin: Нью-йоркский обход (something like New York Rounds) concerns a doctor’s observations of work with very diverse patients in New York and New Delhi. (Sample) (Review)
  • Linor Goralik: Все, способные дышать дыхание (literally something like All Capable of Breathing a Breath, perhaps? Or maybe “Everybody”? I’m interested in figuring out how to read this title.) The brief description introducing this excerpt says the book concerns a country that’s facing a huge catastrophe and discovers that empathy can be a double-edged sword. A Big Book finalist, too, a book that, alas, I’ve had a very hard time trying to get into.
There are four other books on the regular jury’s shortlist:
  • Kirill Kobrin: Поднебесный экспресс (The Celestial Express) sounds like an interesting sort-of-but-not-really-a-detective-novel set on a direct train trip (seventeen days!) from China to London.
  • Daniil Turovskii: Вторжение. Краткая история русских хакеров (Interference. A Brief History of Russian Hackers. Or maybe Break In? I’m not sure if this concerns the 2016 elections in the US or not.) is a journalist’s account of what’s mentioned in the title. (Sample)
  • Evgenii Chizhov: Собиратель рая (The Collector of Heaven? Maybe something more like Collecting Heaven?) concerns a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who often leaves the house and gets lost, and her son (nicknamed “King” because he’s flea market royalty) who goes out to find her. It’s about memory, nostalgia, and people who came of age in the 1990s. I enjoyed Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Translation (previous post) and am looking forward to this book, which is on its way to me. (Sample) (Review)
  • Sofia Sinitskaya: Мироныч, дырник и жеможаха. Рассказы о родине (Mironych, Hole-Worshippers, and ???. Stories About the Motherland. Oh, that “жеможаха” is difficult, please see my previous (longlist) post, including comments for more in it!) contains three novellas set in three separate times: the Great Terror, the late eighteenth century, and the turn of the twenty-first century. The book’s description claims (in my very loose account!) that Sinitskaya’s following in the tracks of Gogol and (even more exciting) Vaginov… (Review) (Sample)
The other books on the critical jury’s shortlist are:
  • Aleksandr Skidan: In Путеводитель по N. (A Guidebook to N.) the N. seems to stand for Nietzsche! :) In this mock autobiography, N. speaks in the voices of luminaries like Rilke, Dostoevsky, and Proust. Hm.
  • Aleksei Polyarinov: Центр тяжести (Center of Gravity) sounds like a long (though Labirint says it’s only 480 pages so I’ll read it in ten days, ha ha, ha ha) and (potentially) formally complex novel about a journalist, a hacker, and an artist. (Review
  • Pavel Peppershtein: Тайна нашего времени (Secret of Our Time) is a collection of sixteen stories with the author’s illustrations, published by Garage. I’ve been meaning to read Peppershtein’s fiction for years, after reading (and later translating a text) about his work with Inspection Medical Hermeneutics.

Disclaimers: The usual. I had a meddlesome (but very sweet) cat on my lap while piecing these lists together and hope I found and deleted all her additions to the post.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik, which I’m continuing to enjoy (and almost sad to be finishing), and the very interesting Big Book finalist biography of Venedikt Erofeev by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky, where (to my surprise) I think I’ve been enjoying the biographical chapters more than the critical chapters because they’re creating such a vivid portrait of Erofeev.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Big Book 3: Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise

Hm. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Рай земной (Earthly Paradise) left me at something of a loss. After reading it during the summer, I referred to it as “a bit confused” in an “Up Next” section. I’ll stick with that assessment, but I think I’ll append that analysis with a line from novelist Daniel Orlov’s July review on godliteratury.ru, which states things even more directly: “Увы, получился очень хорошо написанный и очень скучный роман.” Which means that, alas, it turned out to be a very well written but very boring novel.

Books like Earthly Paradise leave me at a loss largely because they leave so little trace, even immediately after finishing. (Perhaps that’s what leaves the impression of “boring”?) My problems with Earthly Paradise arise largely because Aflatuni does certain things (like write!) pretty well but the book’s individual elements – plotlines, characters, overall feel, thematic motifs – just don’t meld enough to create what I consider a cohesive and satisfying novel. This particularly hurts after his Ant King (previous post), where two very different sections somehow, mysteriously, fit together with a whole lot of verve.

Given the mismatch (or maybe mishmash?) of narrative lines and structure, Earthly Paradise read best to me as the story of a friendship between two women – Plyusha and Natalie – who both live in a building next to a site where Poles were shot during the 1930s. There is also a thick thread that (I’ll admit) made me glaze over so much that I barely remember it: it involves a manuscript by a Polish Orthodox priest. (The manuscript tore me away from plotlines interested me more.) There are also lots of mentions of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, Adam and Eve, and other religion-related topics in the Plyusha/Natalie portions of the book. Those felt more organic to me than the manuscript itself thanks to, for example, conversations, but neither the biblical references nor the priest’s spirit could knit the novel together for me. As so often happens in novels (at least for my picky reading habits), Aflatuni does very nicely creating vivid, memorable characters but fails to place them within a framework that allows a vivid, memorable novel to develop.

Plyusha, Natalie, their characteristic tics, and their friendship were what kept me reading. Plyusha works with archives at a museum that focuses on political repression and she crochets little doilies for everybody. She feels like she’s an ear (large and warm!) to listen to Natalie, who’s more of a livewire and has read War and Peace three times. (How could I not like her after that!?) As if W&P weren’t enough, Natalie is even accused of being an instrument of the dark side. Plyusha’s mother sells Herbalife. Natalie takes karate lessons. Plyusha has an odd relationship with her former professor, Natalie doesn’t do well with her mother, Natalie accuses Plyusha of leading a sheltered life, things happen at the execution site… and so on. They kept me going until the end.

Even so, I came up feeling pretty empty, despite having met two characters with good potential who ended up squandered because the larger questions in the novel – political repression, history, contemporary views of history and political repression, religion – felt a little like (to use a horrible, worn cliché) round pegs for square holes. Or vice versa. They can get crammed and jammed together, but the result isn’t comfortable or elegant; they need custom finish work to be a good fit. Which is unfortunate because I enjoyed Plyusha and Natalie’s company, their situations had lots of potential, and the awful history of the NKVD’s Polish operation deserves discussion, more than it gets here. I feel more regret than usual that a novel fell short for me in large part because it tried too hard to toggle between a primary narrative and an inserted text. Given reader comments on labirint.ru I have to suspect, too, that Orlov (with whom I don’t agree about everything, though I second all his final conclusions, including that the historical and political elements of the book don’t click) and I are more critical than many, if not most, readers who might be more content to skip, skim, and forgive.

Up next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik, which I’m continuing to enjoy, and the very interesting Big Book finalist biography of Venedikt Erofeev by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

2019’s Yasnaya Polyana Award Winners

The onslaught of award news continued this past week as the Yasnaya Polyana Award announced winners. Sergei Samsonov won the contemporary Russian prose category for his Держаться за Землю (Hold Onto (the?) Earth or something similar that captures the importance of mining?) a novel about coal miners and geopolitical conflict, war, in the Donbass region. The award’s news item includes a statement from jury member Vladislav Otroshenko that notes a growing tendency toward writing about contemporary life. This gladdens me after a spate of books about (twentieth-century) history, although – without having yet even attempted to read Samsonov’s book – I’d wondered about exactly what seems to concern reviewer Mikhail Vizel most about the novel. He writes (in my paraphrase) that the events in Donbass are still too hot, too agonizing, for an epic with a bird’s-eye view of events to be artistically effective. He does, though, seem to think many things work well in this fairly traditional novel, where point of view shifts between various characters who inspire reader sympathy.

I was very happy to see that Grigory Sluzhitel won the reader’s choice award for Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post), which I’d been so sure would win that category that I bet some catnip on it. Meanwhile, Hernán Rivera Letelier’s El arte de la resurrección (English title: The Art of Resurrection), in Darya Sinitsina’s translation Искусство воскрешения, won the foreign book award. (My quick searches don’t show that the book has been translated into English; here’s a list of translations from Goodreads. A quick check of Amazon doesn’t turn up any English translations of Letelier books and the only two titles WorldCat comes up with for English sure look to be Spanish. There is, however, a review of The Art of Resurrection here.) Finally, so I can end on an up note rather than yet another book that apparently hasn’t been translated: Yasnaya Polyana’s event award went to Igor Volgin for his TV show Игра в бисер (The Bead Game), in which Volgin and four guests discuss literature, some Russian, some non-Russian, mostly by authors who are no longer among the living. (Vodolazkin’s Laurus is an anomaly!) I saw lots of familiar names – writers, scholars, critics, professors – on the guest lists and realize I’ve been missing out on what appear to be interesting programs. I feel particularly silly since Volgin was at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year and I didn’t take note! The show has been on since 2011 so there’s lots to choose from.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual. Two authors I’ve translated are on the YP jury and I know both Grigory Sluzhitel and Mikhail Vizel. Here, by the way, is Vizel’s piece about the award for the Год литературы site.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise, two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik, which I’m continuing to enjoy, and Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, which kept me up at night reading.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The NOS(E) Award’s 2019 Longlist

The NOS(E) Award announced its longlist a week or two or three ago and, well, yes, I’ve been very slow in posting. Particularly since this is the one longlist I like to list in full: there are sixteen books this year, so wish me luck. (Given some of the titles, I need it!) I’ll list the books in the order they appear on the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation site. The shortlist will be announced on Halloween (trick or treat, dear readers!) after a public debate.
  • Nikolai Kononov: Восстание (Uprising) is a “documentary novel” apparently inspired by the life of Sergei Solovyov, one of the organizers of the Norilsk camp uprising. It’s on the shelf.
  • Andrei Ivanov: Обитатели потешного кладбища (literally: Inhabitants of an/the Amusing Cemetery, I’m thinking this is likely a metaphorical title…) is set in post-war Paris, among Russian emigres, and if the book’s description is to be believed (alas, that’s not always the case, they often feel like a game to me), it apparently hits on a cornucopia of emotions (love and hate) and plot lines (collaboration, resistance, spying, and murder). Among other things. (I am so long overdue to read Ivanov!)
  • Aleksandr Dolinin: Комментарий к роману Владимира Набокова Дар(Commentary on Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel The Gift) is apparently exactly what the title says it is. (Sample
  • Kirill Kobrin: Поднебесный экспресс (The Celestial Express) sounds like an interesting sort-of-but-not-really-a-detective-novel set on a direct train trip (seventeen days!) from China to London. 
  • Alexander Stesin: Нью-йоркский обход (something like All Around New York sounds like it fits the description) concerns a doctor’s observations of work with very diverse patients in New York and New Delhi. (Sample) (Review)
  • Aleksandr Skidan: In Путеводитель по N. (A Guidebook to N.) the N. seems to stand for Nietzsche! :) In this mock autobiography, N. speaks in the voices of luminaries like Rilke, Dostoevsky, and Proust. Hm.
  • Linor Goralik: Все, способные дышать дыхание (literally something like All Capable of Breathing a Breath, perhaps? Or maybe “Everybody”? I’m interested in figuring out how to read this title.) The brief description introducing this excerpt says the book concerns a country that’s facing a huge catastrophe and discovers that empathy can be a double-edged sword. A Big Book finalist, one I’m having a hard time finding a way into.
  • Aleksandr Yarin: Жизнь Алексея: Диалоги (The Life of Alexei: Dialogues) sounds like a polyphonic, polygenre book that includes lots of philosophy and contradictions. And intentional anachronisms, something I do tend to enjoy. (Sample) (Review)
  • Daniil Turovskii: Вторжение. Краткая история русских хакеров (Interference. A Brief History of Russian Hackers. Or maybe Break In? I’m not sure if this concerns the 2016 elections in the US or not.) is a journalist’s account of what’s mentioned in the title. (Sample)
  • Maria Rybakova: Если есть рай (If There’s a Heaven/Paradise) is a bit of a mystery because it has only been published in journal form (in Znamya), meaning there’s no cover blurb (not that those are always very helpful!) and my assumptions could be wildly wrong. The online pages do look inviting, though, particularly after hearing/reading good things about Rybakova’s Gnedich.
  • Evgenii Nikitin: Про папу (About Papa) is, according to the cover, an illustrated “anti-novel,” and, based on the publisher’s description, it sounds like a lovely anomaly for these troubled times we live in. The author wants to make people happy? About Papa is easy reading that prompts smiles and thought? Happy?! Smiles? (Really!) Seriously, though, this sounds like exactly what I need. (Sample)
  • Evgenii Chizhov: Собиратель рая (The Collector of Heaven? Maybe something more like Collecting Heaven? No matter: we have more heaven/paradise…) concerns a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who often leaves the house and gets lost, and her son (nicknamed “King” because he’s flea market royalty) who goes out to find her. It’s about memory, nostalgia, and people who came of age in the 1990s. I enjoyed Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Translation (previous post) and am looking forward to this book. (Sample) (Review)
  • Aleksei Polyarinov: Центр тяжести (Center of Gravity) sounds like a long (though Labirint says it’s only 480 pages so I’ll read it in ten days, ha ha, ha ha) and (potentially) formally complex novel about a journalist, a hacker, and an artist. (Review
  • Pavel Peppershtein: Тайна нашего времени (Secret of Our Time) is a collection of sixteen stories with the author’s illustrations, published by Garage. I’ve been meaning to read Peppershtein’s fiction for years, after reading (and later translating a text) about his work with Inspection Medical Hermeneutics
  • Sofia Sinitskaya: Мироныч, дырник и жеможаха. Рассказы о родине (Mironych, Hole-Worshippers, and ???. Stories About the Motherland. Oh, that “жеможаха” is difficult, I keep going around in circles with it, feeling like I get it but then realizing I’m not quite there. It’s in the sample, it’s from a hymn, words are run together, and it’s mentioned in Saltykov-Shchedrin and, subsequently, Rozanov but, hm, it’s used in the novel as a nickname so I think I just have to read the book.) contains three novellas set in three separate times, the Great Terror, the late eighteenth century, and the turn of the twenty-first century. The book’s description claims (in my very loose account!) that Sinitskaya’s following in the tracks of Gogol and (even more exciting) Vaginov… (Review) (Sample)
  • Aleksei Sal’nikov: Опосредованно (Indirectly or somesuch) is also a Big Book finalist. It’s also the lone book on this list that I’ve read in full. I enjoyed this novel about a woman in the Urals who writes poetry, which has narcotic effects in the world Sal’nikov describes.
Disclaimers: The usual. Knowing a couple of the authors, if only slightly.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise (more heaven/paradise, I think it’s a trend), two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik and Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, both of which I’ve been enjoying very much.