Sunday, June 13, 2021

Books by the Calendar: Charskaya’s School Year and Baranskaya’s Week

I think I’ve been an impatient reader during the last few months. I’m not sure if that’s because of some sort of strange psychological aspect of finally, finally, finally nearing the end of Proust – only half a volume to go, oh, will I be glad to finish! – or because I haven’t been interested in much of the contemporary Russian fiction in my new acquisitions cart. I’m suspecting the latter: I’ve long been moody about my reading choices and I’ve been feeling like nothing fits. Though when something fits (like Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon), I devour it.

Fortunately, I amassed a good selection of twentieth-century books in recent months, leading to a reread of Natalya Baranskaya’s Неделя как неделя (A Week Like Any Other) and then a first reading of Lidia Charskaya’s Записки институтки (hm, maybe Notes of a Boarding School Girl?). They’re very, very different – not surprising given that A Week is dated 1969 and Notes is dated 1901 – and I enjoyed them both, perhaps largely because they’re short, tidy, straightforward works of prose that read easily yet won’t leave me alone. (Unlike Proust: ISOLT simply slithers from my memory!) Both works are also set within very delineated timeframes: Baransksya describes a week in the life of a harried working mother and Charskaya tells the story of a tween girl from Ukraine who’s sent to a boarding school in St. Petersburg.

I first read A Week Like Any Other (brief sample of Pieta Monks’s translation, here) about thirty years ago. I don’t remember if I read in English or Russian but do remember that A Week was generally mentioned along with the phrase “double burden” during discussions of feminism and the numerous work-and-home responsibilities Soviet women were supposed to handle. Olga, A Week’s first-person narrator, works with polymers for sewer pipes and roofs, and she breaks her story into daily installments. The week coincides with the time allotted for answering a questionnaire about family life, to learn why women aren’t having more children. Olga makes a glossary of key words for the topic, covering the Russian alphabet from “a” (аборт/abortion) to “я” (я/I), with words like illness, children, nerves, motherhood, and money in between.

Baranskaya’s writing isn’t beautiful and lovely but given the topic as well as the novella’s effect and pace, I feel like calling it something like “utilitarian” is far higher praise: she covers a week in fifty pages, outlining work problems (falling behind schedule, missing days because her children are sick, relationships with her co-workers, a dreaded political session), family duties (shopping during lunch breaks, housework, taking care of sick children), marital relations (honeymoon flashback, arguments when hubby doesn’t want to help), concerns about her hair, and much, much more. On Friday the thirteenth, she loses something at the office and admits she, too, feels lost. Olga’s candidness about flaws – her own, the system’s, her husband’s – and her unsentimental optimism (I think that’s what I’d call it), plus Baranskaya’s ability to describe the breakneck pace of Olga’s life, make A Week very affecting. That’s how I felt back in the eighties and that’s how I feel now, too, particularly because I read it during a very stressful week, though at least my problem (a severe case of feline non-recognition aggression) could be resolved within a quick couple of weeks, unlike, say, the timesuck of Soviet-era food shopping. Read now, A Week feels like a period piece in some senses (again: Soviet-era shopping procedures) but that’s a plus because the novella feels so true to life, whether you remember those years (I do, albeit a bit later) or are learning about them from literature and history books. What gives A Week its emotional power is Olga’s straightforward (that word again!) account of her feelings, personal situation, and all that rushing, things I think most of us can relate to even now in 2021, if only on some lesser level. Languagehat also wrote about A Week; he researched a literary reference in the text.

Charskaya’s Notes generates empathy differently: this novel(la?) about a girl who leaves home for boarding school and makes friends with Nina, a Georgian princess (!) is sweet and might verge on saccharine if its portrayal of affection and friendship, beloved schoolmates and teachers, and family ties didn’t feel so heartfelt. I came to love the characters, too. Notes is something of a tear-jerker, so, yes, dear reader, I finished the book with damp eyes and a lump in my throat. Lyuda, the first-person narrator, is the daughter of a famous, heroic, and fallen Cossack officer – this is why Lyuda’s given a spot at a school so fancy that (mild spoiler alert!) royals come to visit the school, including Lyuda’s classroom. (And of course Sa Majesté Impériale knows her father’s name.) Among the quirky details of the time: he hands out cigarettes as souvenirs.

Charskaya, who apparently wrote the book from her own notes and experiences, focuses on a defined temporal setting: most of a school year, working in celebrations of Christmas and Easter that bring to mind Pasternak’s Zhivago, where the church calendar has significance. (Charskaya’s Wikipedia page does mention Pasternak, hm...) Descriptions of Christmas are lovely, with trees and tasty care packages, but Lent and Easter were more interesting, for confessions and forgiveness – Lyuda wants to forgive everyone and even confesses to throwing balls of bread at her friends – as well as a harbinger of death. I think my favorite aspect of Notes, though, is the day-to-day: nervousness when answering in class, descriptions of the dortoir, mentions of sweets and dining hall offerings, and rivalries among the girls. Nothing goes to waste here: an episode where Nina brings a crow into the classroom and is punished for it reveals many girls’ generosity. It also made me laugh.

My book with Notes also includes a prequel that tells Nina’s story. It’s apparently much beloved, though I’m not sure I want to read it. Nina’s a good character – smart, sharp, loyal to those she loves – and she’s proud of her heritage but I think I’d rather leave her story and Lyuda’s stories as they are for now. Judging from comments on Russian book sites, Notes is popular among young readers. I’m sure I would have loved it at Lyuda’s age (elevenish), and I enjoyed it very much now, both as a sentimental tale (no spoilers!) and as a very vivid, detailed, exuberant, and often humorous account of a certain angle on a (fictionalized) life at the turn of the last century.

Up Next: Big Book finalists. Vodolazkin’s History of Island, yes, I’m still reading; I’m also translating a brief excerpt. Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon, which I’m translating, meaning I keep discovering and connecting more and more details. Belyaev’s The Air Seller.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

My Favorite Pelevin Wins 2021 NatsBest

I missed yesterday’s NatsBest Award news thanks to not one but two Internet outages (!) so was pleased to learn this morning that Alexander Pelevin won the 2021 prize for his Pokrov-17. Video of the ceremony has not yet been posted but according to RG.RU, each jury member voted for a different finalist (there were six of each!), leaving the honorary (nonvoting) jury chair, Grigory Ivliev, to break the tie. I haven’t read any of the books on the shortlist – which look especially decent this year – but thoroughly enjoyed Pelevin’s The Four and Kalinova Yama so am looking forward to this one.  

For more on how this happened: Mikhail Vizel for Год литературы


Disclaimers and Disclosures: Nothing but the usual this time?

Up Next: They’re piling up. Natalya Baranskaya’s A Week Like Any Other, which was just the thing during a particularly harried recent week. Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I’m translating and enjoying for the third time but still don’t know how to write about. And Eugene (Zhenya!) Vodolazkin’s The History of Island, which I’m rereading the way it should be read – slowly – which means I’m appreciating it even more the second time around. I also just started Lidia Charskaya’s Lidia Записки институтки, about a girl who’s sent to a private school at a tender young age. The Big Book finalist announcement is coming soon, too.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The 2021 Big Book Longlist: Best-Laid Plans Edition

The Big Book Award announced a longlist of forty-one books a Tuesday or two ago. This year’s longlist gives me hope that the 2021 shortlist might be at least a little better (meaning more readable!) than last year’s, though (cue my perennial gripe) only 11.5 of this year’s longlist titles were written by women. That’s a bit better than last year’s eight out of thirty-nine although, as always, I don’t know much about what books were nominated.

I started this post last weekend but didn’t finish (an all-life-cycles mouse infestation in the garden shed was a complete downer) but am picking back up today and attempting to accentuate the positive and focus on some books that sound good.

First off, three books overlap with this year’s National Bestseller Award shortlist. It’s probably no coincidence that these three had the top scores in NatsBest voting and are also the (unread, for me) books that interest me most:

  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka) is a continuation (of sorts?) of The Devil’s Wheel (previous post), which I loved so very much about ten years ago. The friend who bought Koka seems to be enjoying it. 
  • Alexander Pelevin’s Покров-17 (Pokrov-17) is set in the Kaluga area in 1993 but the action somehow connects to a World War 2 battle. Pelevin loves playing with time like this, which is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed two of his other books (The Four) and (Kalinova Yama) so much. I’ve actively avoided learning more about Pokrov-17 before reading.
  • Vera Bogdanova’s Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures) sounds scarily intriguing, with its digital concentration camp and “total chipization.” I’ve seen lots of praise for this book and am looking forward to reading it.

 Then there are some books I’ve read or have on the shelves:

  • I’m still rereading Eugene Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова (The History of Island), which I loved on the first reading for its chronicle-like format (sometimes!) and stylization (varying!) and blend of timelines. It’s a very Vodolazkonian novel; he’s exceptionally skilled at writing about favorite themes from new angles that make his material fresh, relevant, and related to his others works without repeating them.
  • Shamil Idiatullin’s Последнее время (it sounds like this is more likely Last/Final Time(s) than, say, Of Late, though who knows!) concerns an invented country. Maria Galina’s back-cover blurb calls it ethnofantasy. I haven’t been a big fan of Idiatullin’s realistic work so bought this with the hope of enjoying something that’s less a part of this world.
  • Sergei Samsonov’s Высокая кровь (High Blood) is a thick (630+ pages of small print) book set during the Civil War that (among other things) borrows on themes from Sholokhov. Translating a sample was very, very challenging thanks to Platonovesque stylistics, regional language, and literary references. The text is dense and interesting. I need to read the rest of the book.
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Филэллин (The Philhellene) is a novel where characters converse through journals, letters, and mental conversations. Yuzefovich’s own back-cover description of the book refers to it as being closer to “variations on historical themes than a traditional historical novel.” This is another book where I’ve purposely avoided trying to learn too much before reading.
  • Bulat Khanov’s Развлечения для птиц с подрезанными крыльями (perhaps something like Diversions for Birds With Clipped Wings) is described as a book about rebels but I read about a third and found it a bit slow to develop, even plodding, as it follows four people who seem to be all too fated to meet. I suspect part of my problem with Birds is that, well, its wings feel so clipped, making it feel very safe compared to Khanov’s much briefer, far riskier, and higher soaring Rage (previous post). William Barclay, by the way, translated an extended sample of Rage, under the RusTRANS project.
  • I’ve had so many similar problems with books by familiar (even favorite) authors in the last year, that I wonder if my problem is due to my pandemic-era pickiness rather than flawed novels. To wit… Narine Abgaryan’s Симон (Simon) also didn’t quite hit me though I wonder if that’s because her Three Apples Fell From the Sky, which I translated, still feels so familiar and very dear to me. Similarly, Marina Stepnova’s best-selling Cад (The Garden, a.k.a. A New Breed) interested me far less for its nineteenth-century plot and characters than for its stylized language, which made me more than happy to work on a sample; this could be a matter of familiarity, too, after so enjoying translating two Stepnova novels set in later times.

Now a few potentially interesting books and/or authors I hadn’t known anything about. The pool isn’t very bigI’ve read twenty-seven of the authors on the longlist – so first I’ll cheat and mention a few more familiar authors on the list: Irina Bogatyreva, Ilya Boyashov, Sergei Nosov, Aleksei Polyarinov, Roman Senchin, and Alla Gorbunova. Since I’m always looking for novels (preferably novels with plots!) that narrows my choices a lot for unknown books and authors. But here are three books, one of which has only been published in a journal thus far, making it all the more mysterious:

  • Ksenia Dragunskaya’s Туда нельзя (which I really want to call Don’t Go There, in the literal sense) sounds like it might connect several characters’ stories because of a lake. (?)
  • Olga Pokrovskaya’s Летучий корабль (Airliner, perhaps?) is apparently about aviation.
  • Roman Shmarakov’s Алкиной (Alcinous, I guess) is set in the fourth century, in the late Roman Empire. Although it’s apparently often described as a “philological novel,” Artyom Roganov’s review for Gorky Media says it’s more. (And even cites humor! We enjoy humor!)

Up Next: Two rereads: Vodolazkin’s History of Island and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I nominated for the Big Book and am translating. I reread very slowly!

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, including having translated some of the authors on the longlist. I signed a request to call in an unnominated Pavel Krusanov collection for Big Book; he’s a good writer so I’m glad it made the list. I’ve received a number of the books on the list from agents, authors, or publishers in either electronic or print copies.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The 2021 NatsBest Shortlist

Well, that seemed to happen fast: The National Bestseller Award announced its six-book shortlist last week. I’m so behind on new releases that I haven’t studied up much on some of these titles. So no time like this chilly spring day to learn a bit more.

  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka) (10 points) is the only book I know much of anything about. It’s a continuation (of sorts?) of The Devil’s Wheel (previous post), which I loved so very much about ten years ago. A friend just bought Koka and I’m looking forward to hearing her thoughts. (I was going to order it a couple weeks ago myself but it sold out!)
  • Alexander Pelevin’s Покров-17 (Pokrov-17) (8 points) is set in the Kaluga area in 1993 but the action somehow connects to a World War 2 battle. Pelevin loves playing with time like this, which is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed two of his books (The Four) and (Kalinova Yama) so much. I’ve actively avoided learning more about Pokrov-17 before reading.
  • Vera Bogdanova’s Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures) (7 points) sounds scarily intriguing, with its digital concentration camp and “total chipization.” I’ve seen lots of praise for this book and am looking forward to reading it.
  • Mrshavko Shtapich’s Плейлист волонтера (A/The Volunteer’s Playlist) (6 points) is, according to nominator Yulia Selivanova’s text, “a contradictory book” thanks to its narrator’s depiction of his own deviant behavior, which contrasts with media characterizations of idealized volunteers. Nonfiction. One NatsBest juror, Mitya Samoilov, called it a “guilty pleasure.” Juror Denis Epifantsev says it’s the best book he’s read this year and compares Shtapich to Hunter S. Thompson. (!)
  • Daniel Orlov’s Время рискованного земледелия (A/The Time of Risky Arable Farming?) (5 points) is set in today’s Russia; Andrei Astvatsaturov’s nomination note calls it a “wonderful example of contemporary realistic, social prose,” going on to note dynamic plot lines. I love the thought of dynamic plot lines and arable farming in one book.
  • Ivan Shipnigov’s Стрим (Stream) (5 points) sounds like a polyphonic, “verbatim” book about life among young (Russian) adults. Given that Shipnigov is a screenwriter, this may be a book where the verbatim approach actually works.

So there you have it. These six books sound like a pretty decent lot, though (here comes my perennial gripe) I’m disappointed there aren’t more books written by women. Which means I’m going to order up a few from the longlist that sound good but didn’t make the shortlist. This seems to have become an annual ritual.

Just a reminder that the NatsBest site has an archive of reviews/opinions written by “Big Jury” members (here) and that their votes are archived as well (here). The winner will be selected on some future day at some future time. (Translation: I didn’t see a date mentioned for the ceremony.)

Up Next: The Big Book longlist. My reread of Vodolazkin’s Island. Another book to reread, which finally arrived in a printed copy.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, with some familiar names on the nominator, author, and jury lists.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Fear Itself?: Anton Chizh’s Fear Machine

Anton Chizh’s Машина страха – I think I’ll take the easy way out and go for the Ronco-like title, The Fear Machine – is a retro detective novel set in 1898 St. Petersburg among a circle of people who hold séances where participants don’t just commune with the dead, they die. The Fear Machine blends historical, detective, and mystical elements, and it felt a bit peculiar to me, though that’s probably largely because I joined Chizh’s series of books about investigator Rodion Vanzarov and his crime-fighting cohort rather late in the game, as they say, with (if goodreads is correct) book eleven of a series.

So many characters! It feels like there are dozens of policemen, doctors, scientists, mediums, nosy neighbors, relatives, servants, and various other figures (the notary!) strewn throughout the novel. Come to think of it, there probably are that many. That’s not so much a complaint about Chizh’s book as a complaint about my own decision to read the most recent Vanzarov book (yes, #11!) when I could have started with book one and gotten to know Vanzarov’s co-workers more gradually. Then again, who am I for those subtleties?

I’m especially not inclined to complain because The Fear Machine made for fairly satisfying reading. I confess that I’m still having trouble focusing on certain types of books, particularly those set in the present day, meaning that the distant past is lovely (no worries about masking!), the contrast of the mediums’ psychic seeing with Vanzarov’s more scientific psychologika (my version, sorry) is welcome (mysticism takes me out of the news of the day), and detective novels tend to offer resolutions (satisfying in these indefinite days). For better or worse, The Fear Machine, which I think could rightly be considered a police procedural, ends with resolving whodunit1 (finding the murderer) but leaving whodunit2 (the fate of the machine, called “machina terroris” in a footnote) unsolved. The book ends with “конец I сеанса,” which sure looks in this case like “end of the first séance.” Implying: to be continued.

The Fear Machine plods along – it truly does describe a lot of police procedures – but the use of hypnosis, the notions of employing technology to catch criminals, and Vanzarov’s relentless use of psychological methods combine pretty decently. Particularly given all the personal fears and foibles sprinkled in. As well as familiar Petersburg toponyms. And humor: there’s even a sneaky little reference to Alexei Salnikov’s The Petrovs in and Around the Flu. All in all, a moderately satisfying book to read in strange times. These days, a “moderately satisfying,” even average, book that’s a slight bit cozy and involves genre norms can work its own practical wonders by not keeping me up at night.

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s History of Island, which I love, though it’s too fine a book to reread quickly these days. I have a print copy of another book to reread on the way, too.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.