Friday, October 26, 2007

The Charms of Kharms

Daniil Kharms is back, just in time for this year's Russian elections! Natal’ia Mitroshina’s Падение в небеса (Falling into the Heavens), based on Kharms’s diary and cycle of stories, Случаи (Incidences), is a featured film at this fall's 2morrow/завтра film festival in Moscow.

Kharms is tremendously popular in Russia, at least among my friends, but it took me years to appreciate his absurd stories and poems. By the time I understood, from personal experience, what my friends meant when they said that living in Russia meant always having to prove that you’re not a camel, I was ready for Kharms. Maybe it’s time to try Waiting for Godot again, too.

Kharms may be an acquired taste, at least for some of us, but he does have his charms, particularly for students of Russian. His writing is often simple and repetitive, with fairly easy vocabulary. And the element of absurdity builds a skill that’s often overlooked: confidence in your reading comprehension skills. Can blows to the head with a cucumber really kill? In this world, yes.

I like to page through my Kharms book and read random pieces. My favorite so far has been his longest story, Старуха(“The Old Woman”). Here’s what I wrote about it for a Soviet literature workshop last year:

The Old Woman” is one of Daniil Kharms’s longest works but, at 20+ pages, still quite short. Kharms is known and much loved in Russia for his avant-garde, absurd, and very short stories, many of which are difficult for us to relate to. “The Old Woman” combines, among other elements, black humor, a Stalin-era feeling of desperation about life (Kharms was arrested more than once), the St. Petersburg tradition of fantastically strange events. Absurd stories don’t often appeal to me, but I found this one oddly compelling. There is a dual-language version available on; much of the language in the Russian original is quite simple. Kharms: The Old Woman (Bristol Russian Texts Series) (Bristol Russian Texts Series)
-For more Kharmsian absurdity, try these translated stories in a recent issue of The New Yorker.

-On a non-Kharms note, if you’re interested in the connection between camels and absurdity, you might enjoy Jerzy Stuhr’s “The Big Animal,” summarized nicely in this review. I loved this movie.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Not By Bread Alone": A Literary Footnote to "Doctor Zhivago"

When Boris Pasternak was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1958, he initially intended to accept the award. But five days after telegramming his delight with the honor, Pasternak caved in to pressure from the Soviet literary community and sent another telegram to Sweden, this time refusing the award. Pasternak’s telegrams to the Nobel Committee and his inability to claim the award are well known. This brief account of the controversy quotes from Pasternak’s letter to the Soviet Writers Union, mentioning Pasternak’s belief that writing and publishing Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago) was not inconsistent with being a Soviet person.
Pasternak’s rationale? Official publication of Vladimir Dudintsev’s Не хлебом единым (Not By Bread Alone), a novel that examined questions of individuality and the collective. Unlike Doctor Zhivago, Dudintsev’s book has been largely forgotten, except as an example of loosened censorship and hope during Khrushchev’s thaw.

Unfortunately, Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until perestroika. Russian-language editions were available in the West in two forms: regular-sized books or tiny paperbacks that were easy to sneak into the USSR in a pocket. I bought the miniature version because the standard book was much more expensive.
Here's what I wrote for a Soviet fiction workshop last year about Not by Bread Alone:
Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not By Bread Alone is a somewhat peculiar book because of its historical time, the Khrushchev thaw. With a production novel structure and a hero battling to do what he feels is right to produce a better pipe-pouring machine that will help Soviet industry, the novel almost feels socialist realist. The twist is that the hero, Lopatkin, is an inventor who is reviled and called egotistical by a group of government bureaucrats and scientists. Government bureaucracy – not capitalist wreckers -- is the villain here.

The novel, written in 1956, was controversial when published in a literary journal, and my take is that it’s most important for the fact of being published, not its literary merit. The ado about the book was so strong that Dudintsev was condemned at a writers’ union meeting, whereupon he fainted. If you have read a socialist realist novel or two before this book, you’ll understand the book’s significance. As a novel, however, Not By Bread Alone is far from great. Much of what happens is predictable, and the characters are not all very developed, despite the book’s length. Some literary devices are painfully obvious and awkwardly handled: naming a character Надежда
(Hope), comparing the inventor to Christ, etc. The book reads easily because the inventor and love subplots interrupt each other, but it feels too long.
Books mentioned in this post:

Doctor Zhivago Not by Bread Alone by Vladimir Dudintsev

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"A Life in Books" -- Hass Hearts C&P

The best piece of each Newsweek is usually the shortest: "A Life in Books." This week's edition comes from former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, who says his fourth most important book is Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Dostoevsky isn't exactly light reading, so it's interesting to see references to Dostoevsky -- and particularly C&P -- in Russian popular culture, including two soap opera-like series that I have watched. Still, this item about a new American musical of C&P really takes the cake.

Mentioned in this posting:

Crime and Punishment

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ivan Bunin: A New Statue in Moscow

A new statue of poet and prose writer Ivan Bunin was installed in Moscow today, opposite the house where Bunin lived before emigrating.

I suspect that Bunin is probably the least-read Russian Nobel Prize winner (1933) among American readers: Boris Pasternak (1958), Mikhail Sholokhov (1965), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970), and Joseph Brodsky (1987) all have greater name recognition, for quite varied reasons.

The speech presenting Bunin with his Nobel award recognized his following 19th century classical literary traditions. Bunin’s "Тёмные аллеи" ("Dark Alleys") cycle of short stories is among his best-known work, and his “Sunstroke” is considered an erotic classic. Themes from "Dark Alleys" were adapted for film in 1991, but the movie seems largely forgotten, perhaps because costume dramas based on literature were a bit atypical for the perestroika era.

I’ve always felt guilty for knowing so little about Bunin – particularly because I’ve enjoyed what I read – so maybe this is a sign to take him off the shelf!

Graham Hettlinger’s translations of Bunin have won positive reviews:

Collected Stories of Ivan Bunin The Elagin Affair: And Other Stories Sunstroke: Selected Stories

Friday, October 19, 2007

"New Yorker" Story & "Times" Book Review

The October 22, 2007, issue of The New Yorker includes "Among Animals and Plants," ("Среди животных и растений") the translation of a long story by Andrei Platonov. I've only read the beginning so far, but particularly liked the comparison of ants and kulaks. There's not much information about the piece online, even in Russian, but one site calls this story "small," so I wonder if perhaps what's in The New Yorker combines several stories with the same character.

Today's New York Times has a book review of
Simon Sebag Montefiore's new biography, Young Stalin. If you're more interested in how fiction writers portray Stalin, Vasilii Aksenov and Anatolii Rybakov both wrote trilogies that include Stalin as a character.

The first volume of Aksenov's Moscow Saga (
Московская сага) is called Generations of Winter in English. I read the whole trilogy, though skimmed at times and often felt irritated with Aksenov's literary devices and namedropping. I liked Rybakov's trilogy, beginning with Children of the Arbat (Дети Арбата), much better: the characters and their lives felt realer, and I think Rybakov is a more modest writer.

Happy reading!

Books in this posting:

Young Stalin Generations of Winter
The Children of the Arbat: A Novel (Rybakov, Anatolii Naumovich. Arbat Trilogy, V. 1.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Found in Translation: "Transparent Sounds" & Defamiliarization

Which description of hoofbeats is more unusual: "transparent sounds" or "thud"? Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's new translation of War and Peace opts for transparency in a passage mentioning horses. Pevear outlines their approach to literary translation and reasons for this choice in an essay in the New York Times Book Review.

Beyond the fact that "transparent sounds" is a more accurate representation of Tolstoy's original "прозрачные звуки," I think Pevear and Volokhonsky deserve praise for trusting their readers. Pevear says previous translators opted for thuds and clangs -- my Ann Dunnigan translation thuds -- and calls the use of "transparent sounds" one of Tolstoy's "moments of fresh, immediate perception."

What I find odd is that translators before Pevear and Volokhonsky evidently chose to add another filter between the original Russian text and readers of English-language translations. I suspect translators think they are helping readers: what if someone hasn't heard hoofbeats and can't relate to "transparent sounds"?

I'd prefer that translators trust readers to understand what writers hope to convey in their originals, even if their wording sounds odd. In fact, odd is sometimes the intention: many Russian writers employ defamiliarization (остранение, literally "making it strange") in their writing. Unusual combinations of words or situations or contexts help characters and readers to re-evaluate familiar reality. One of my favorite scenes in War and Peace involves Natasha Rostova's first trip to the opera, where everything seems unnatural. (In Russian. In English.)

People often ask me which translations or translators are best. I'm not always sure, but I do know that sometimes the best translation is the one that you will read and enjoy. Readers have different criteria: cost, print size, book heft, glossaries, character lists...

Then there's style. Personally, I don’t like the Maudes' translations of Tolstoy because I don't think they capture Tolstoy's style. But some people like them. In a sidebar accompanying a long article about War and Peace, Newsweek published brief excerpts from two translations of War and Peace to show how much versions can vary. If you have the luxury of choosing between two different translations of one book, page through them to see if the writing speaks to you and sounds, well, transparent. That's the easiest way to find something -- meaning, I hope -- in translation.

One other thing: If you haven't read War and Peace, don't be afraid of it. I've recommended or given it to many varied readers over the years, and almost all of them have at least made a good show of telling me they finished and/or liked it. Tolstoy's brief chapters make it easy to read just a little more... and the book is so absorbing that the nights can get very late.

Edit: The New York Review of Books published this interesting article, by Orlando Figes, about the new translation.

Books in this posting:
War and Peace, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky
War and Peace (Signet Classics), trans. Dunnigan

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hello and Welcome!

Disclaimer/Disclosure Update (last updated February 9, 2020): The Russian literature field is small, with fewer than six degrees of separation. As a blogger, freelance writer, and freelance translator, I meet many people – agents, authors, other bloggers, booksellers, journalists, magazines, nonprofit organizations, publicists, publishers, readers, reviewers, translators, writers, etc. – online and in person. I discuss books, publishing, translation, and/or projects with them; those discussions may result in collegial collaborations and/or friendly interactions, as well as paid work related to Russian fiction. (Read Russia, for example, is one of my clients; I write for Read Russia.) This blog can and should be considered related to my paid work and I may consider some of the people I mention to be colleagues and/or friends. Some posts may mention individuals or entities with whom/which I (have) collaborate(d) in some way or discuss books related to them. Though I will always mention review copies received from publishers if I am posting a review-like post and prefer to mention other collaborations, I may not always mention or offer detail about my contact(s) with people/organizations mentioned in my posts: publishing is, after all, a competitive business and confidentiality is important. Two other important things that are probably pretty obvious: 1) Nobody pays me, with money, favors, or anything else, to write blog posts, and 2) My goal as a blogger is to provide honest, critical opinions about the books I read. My honest opinions are the basis of my relationships with all my readers, including publishing houses and agents whose books and writers I read and discuss. I may update this statement at any time, as needed, without notice. (If you’re wondering why I feel compelled to write this disclaimer/disclosure, please read this post on Boston Bibliophile, which contains a FAQ about FTC guidelines that apply to book bloggers.)

P.S. Some of my posts include affiliate links.


I started Lizok’s Bookshelf because people frequently ask me for book suggestions. Those who know me can guess that my easy first choices usually include Russian classics like War and Peace and Doctor Zhivago, two of my favorites.

But what happens after those? Contemporary Russian novels? Or forgotten classics of the 19th and 20th centuries? Maybe genres like Russian detective novels? I began leading literature workshops a few years ago because I hoped I could help Russian books, beyond the blockbusters, reach a few more readers.
Although I read Russian novels in Russian, most of the books I will write about here are available in translation. I hope that this blog will help inspire readers to take up Russian novels, be they classics or contemporary. Another reason I decided to start this blog is that – as I was preparing for an upcoming workshop on post-Soviet era novels – I found very little background information about contemporary Russian writers.
I will only write in-depth about books that I finish, though I may mention others that I didn’t like enough to complete. Just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean that you won’t. I’m a famously impatient reader, so if I don’t like a book but still finish it, something must be interesting!
My goal in writing about books is not to review or analyze them, it is to write about why they appealed to me. I don’t consider myself an expert in Russian literature, just a reader. I finished my MA in Russian literature but dropped out of grad school before receiving a PhD. I couldn’t picture myself as an academic.
I plan to write one or two detailed postings a week and will add links to news items and book reviews, too. I have plenty of ideas for topics but also look forward to your questions. I encourage you to contribute to discussion here, either by adding your own comments about books or asking questions that I or other readers might be able to answer. This is intended as a site for everyone, so I will monitor comments.
Thank you for visiting. I look forward to hearing from you!

Books in this posting:

War and Peace Doctor Zhivago