Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Vladimir Sorokin's "Ice" Capades

Probably the most famous statement in Russian literature about ice is “Лёд тронулся.” It translates roughly to “the ice is moving” and indicates progress, advancement. Who said it? A conman, Ostap Bender of Il’f and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs. The more I think of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Лёд (Ice), the more I think of Ostap Bender: Sorokin’s Ice is more con than novel.

Ice chronicles the activity of certain blue-eyed, blond-haired people who search for others that look like themselves. When they find them, they bang on their chests with icy hammers. Some hammerees respond by speaking their “true” names through their hearts; they are rehabilitated. The rest, the “empties,” are left to die.

There are many layers to the book that I won’t detail, lest you, too, get sucked into this slippery mess and want to discover its core. Be ready: Ice may max out your capabilities for the willing suspension of disbelief.
Sorokin divides his book into several stylistically dissimilar sections that he links with the ice motif. The first part of Ice takes place in contemporary Russia, and the heart hammerers resemble a Russian criminal group. This part of the book is brutal, at least in the Russian original, with so much gratuitous and graphic violence, swearing, sex, and other ickiness that many readers may want to abandon the novel.

Why did I keep reading? For one, I wanted to finish the book to get a feel for why Sorokin has caused so much controversy. One lesson learned: Sorokin’s love for writing about bathroom-related topics made it obvious why Putin’s youth group Walking Together (Идущие вместе) used a toilet to collect Sorokin books during a protest.

Still, I have to, grudgingly, give Sorokin some credit: he has a decent sense of timing and knows how to manipulate the reader to finish a book. Just as the violence and abuse in Ice became too much, Sorokin shifted his narrative. By this point, it was too late for me to put the book down because my interest was piqued. Would the book get better? Were the hammerers an Aryan cult? What did the heart have to do with everything? Or anything? Would I send my copy of Ice to Russia for a flush?

I finished and kept it. The book calmed down some but didn’t exactly improve, meaning that, unfortunately, the answers to the other questions are murky. In terms of meaning, Ice is as empty as the heartless victims of the hammer, and I won’t consult the other installments of Sorokin’s trilogy for further clarification. Once is enough, thanks.

One positive: as Ice progresses, Sorokin rather cleverly shows the group altering its operations to fit societal changes, operating under KGB cover during the Stalin years and later distributing ice hammers for home use.

The biggest reason I don’t want to finish the trilogy is that there’s nobody to care about in Ice. Whether the hammerers are good or bad forces in the world becomes a moot point because they feel as icy as their hammers, despite allegedly speaking with their hearts.

Although Sorokin has said that this is his first book where content is more important than form and that he believes the book is about the search for a lost spiritual paradise rather than about totalitarianism, I can’t buy his supposed sincerity. Ice is about a utopian abstraction, not real people.

That leads to another problem. Ice also feels, to me, like a confused and ambiguous statement about the Soviet past, where another perverted utopian abstraction took precedence over real people. Like the Soviet regime, the hammerers abuse their power to lead a chosen few toward the promise of a bright future, meanwhile pounding at the chests of the less fortunate masses, whom they condemn to death and ignomy. It’s an odd form of compassion.

Somehow, it seems fitting that my copy of Ice is flawed: the book’s innards are glued upside down inside the cover. Perhaps even the publisher isn’t sure which end is up. Paging Ostap Bender…

Summary: Not particularly recommended except as an insight into what some Russians are reading these days. Ice, a combination of melodramatic kitsch, science fiction, and pop philosophy, is a book that gets under your skin and reads quickly if you get hooked in. Not for the faint of heart (sorry) or those impatient with postmodernist manipulation of genre or readers. The translation looked quite decent in spot checks, though the first section seemed overly colloquial. Jamey Gambrell’s English-language translation of Ice was published by the New York Review of Books in the icy depths of January 2007.

PDF of Ice, Chapter One

Ice (New York Review Books Classics) on Amazon

Sunday, November 25, 2007

James Wood & Lev Tolstoy, History & Literature, &tc

It’s a happy day when I can read an analysis-review in The New Yorker by a favorite critic, James Wood, writing about one of my favorite books, Lev Tolstoy’s Война и мир (War and Peace). I’m even happier that Wood succeeded both in illustrating the superiority of a new translation of War and Peace and describing Tolstoy’s techniques in the span of about five pages.

I always enjoy reading Wood’s reviews because he shows a rare talent for illuminating literary texts: he explains literary theory and techniques in ways that make books more intriguing rather than stripping them of their mysteries.

Wood’s piece on War and Peace praises the translation of Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear because he believes they give “new access to the spirit and order of the book.” Although I can’t quite share his enthusiasm for the use of “juicy” for сочный instead of “sappy” in the passage detailing Prince Andrei’s observations of an oak tree – this juice is sap, so neither word is truly right or wrong – his analysis of Tolstoy’s narration should help readers link the book’s style and substance.

Wood’s commentary on Tolstoy’s paradoxes – Is Tolstoy’s narration intrusive or absent? Are his characters unique or typical? – mentions that Tolstoy, who read European fiction as well as “awkward misfits” of Russian literature, didn’t consider War and Peace a novel. Wood also covers the literary device of defamiliarization, “making it strange” (остранение), and Tolstoy’s views of history, including his belief in “ordinary” people instead of famous figures.

A Couple Thoughts on History and Literature. Writing and reading fiction about historical figures raises questions about plenty of books beyond War and Peace. A friend who's reading Anatolii Rybakov’s Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat) mentioned that she has trouble with the passages about Stalin. Despite loving most of the book, I did, too, and admit that I skimmed many of the Stalin scenes because I preferred the fictional characters; a Russian friend did the same.

I read fiction because I like to lose myself in stories that combine imaginary people, ideas about real life, and literary devices that help make the stories compelling. Every now and then, though, I find myself caught up in historical novels with figures who once lived. When I began thinking more about what historical characters work for me, I realized that I react best to figures about whom I have the least book knowledge. For example:

-Tolstoy’s generals are fine because of my limited knowledge of the War of 1812.

-I have read so much about Stalin, though, that I much preferred fictional characters in Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat trilogy.

-Vasilii Aksenov’s Московская сага, which begins in English with Generations of Winter, did not impress me when a fictional character gave Stalin an enema. It’s not proctology that was the problem, though: I didn’t like his fictional characters’ interactions with real writers, either. I know too much about Stalin and the writers. Meanwhile, though, I didn’t mind Aksenov’s characterization of Stalin’s son because I knew little about him. In fact, Aksenov piqued my interest enough that I watched a documentary about Vasilii’s exploits as a pilot.

Book Reviews. Today’s New York Times Book Review contains two reviews of nonfiction books about the Soviet Union and Russia:

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Review by Richard Lourie.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes. Review by Joshua Rubenstein. Although I rarely read nonfiction books, Figes’s inclusion of the stories of Pavlik Morozov, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, and Konstantin Simonov should be more than enough to inspire me to look at the factual side of Russian cultural life for 700 or so pages. Figes’s Natasha’s Dance is a valuable book on Russian cultural history.

Books in this posting:
Pevear-Volokhonsky's "War and Peace" on Amazon
Children of the Arbat on Amazon
Vasilii Aksenov on Amazon
Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin Books on Amazon
Orlando Figes Books on Amazon

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Big Book Awards, Part II

I caught the end of a Russian newscast today, just in time to hear an excited correspondent announce the newly minted "Большая книга" (Big Book) award winners for 2007.

Liudmila Ulitskaya won first prize with Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator), mirroring her win among "ordinary" readers who voted for their favorites over the Internet. Third place went to Dina Rubina for На солнечной стороне улицы (On the Sunny Side of the Street). That book won second place among Internet voters. (My earlier posting about Big Book Internet voting has information on these two writers' translated books.)

Aleksei Varlamov took second prize for his biography Алексей Толстой (Aleksei Tolstoy). Varlamov is now writing a biography of Mikhail Bulgakov. Although Varlamov's books don't seem to be available in translation, several of Aleksei Tolstoy's are, including children's stories and the science fiction classic Aelita.

Big Book presented three special prizes, too:

A posthumous award to Ilya Kormil'tsev, a translator and poet who also wrote song lyrics for the rock group Nautilius Pompilius.

Andrei Bitov, author of Пушкинский дом (Pushkin House), and Valentin Rasputin, a Siberian writer controversial for his political views, won the other special awards.

Bitov's Pushkin House is a dense piece of metafiction packed with literary allusions. I found it alternatively fun and tedious: four-page paragraphs get me down in any language! I read about half the book, enjoying some of the many (many!) endnotes more than the main text. He says in this interview that he doesn't edit his work.

I'm even less familiar with Rasputin, though I did read and enjoy a story or two years ago. His Прощание с Матёрой (Farewell to Matyora) is probably his best-known work.

That's it for this Thanksgiving day: the turkey is almost done!

In this posting:
Liudmila Ulitskaya Books on Amazon
Aleksei Tolstoy Books on Amazon
Andrei Bitov Books on Amazon
Valentin Rasputin Books on Amazon

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mikhail Bulgakov and Ivan Vasilyevich

Its no mystery why Leonid Gaidai’s Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (“Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession”) became a Soviet box office hit. The movie has everything: antic comedy and gags, songs, a pretender to the throne, Ivan the Terrible, satire on Soviet bureaucracy, a geeky hero named Shurik, a time machine, and more. This YouTube video of one of the first scenes will give you a sense of its now-retro feel.

Several of Gaidai’s movies remain so popular that many Russian can recite famous lines -- I knew a couple from “Ivan Vasilyevich” without realizing where they came from! The screenplay for “Ivan Vasilyevich” is particularly rich with humor because it’s based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s play Ivan Vasilyevich, written in 1935-1936. The movie retains much of the play’s dialogue despite transferring action from the 1930s to the 1970s. I can’t find evidence that the play is available in English, but it shares characters, including Ivan the Terrible, and motifs with a predecessor, Bulgakov’s 1934 Блаженство, available in English as Bliss.

Readers of Bulgakov’s novel Мастер и Маргарита (Master and Margarita) will recognize some familiar elements, albeit on a smaller scale, in “Ivan Vasilyevich.” Although the two works may not seem to have much in common, both involve demons, witches, and unclean spirits, either as characters or superstitions. Both also center around mysterious occurrences and neighbors in Soviet apartment buildings. Though Ivan Vasilyevich, at 40 pages, lacks the richness of M&M, its contrasts – historical and contemporary, reality and fantasy – encourage thought along with the fun.

I loved watching the movie and highly recommend it to students of Russian language, literature, and culture. Even if you don’t enjoy Soviet humor – it’s an acquired taste for many westerners – or catch cultural references, “Ivan Vasilyevich” is worth watching. It’s an important remnant of Soviet popular culture and an example of Mikhail Bulgakov’s wonderful imagination and comedy. Best of all, you can sample clips on YouTube, then add the DVD to your Netflix list! It is now known as "Ivan Vasilievich - Back to the Future" in English.

In this posting:

Mikhail Bulgakov on Amazon
Leonid Gaidai on Amazon (all four are classics)

Friday, November 16, 2007


One word of Cyrillic – плутоний (plutonium) – in an advertisement was enough to catch my eye last night, sending me to my basement stockpile for a book that I had (guiltily) ignored for several years. I’m glad I reacted and took a break from another nuclear-themed book, Tat’iana Tolstaya’s Кысь (The Slynx).

The advertisement: The Half Life of Timofey Berezin
The book: Pu-239, by Ken Kalfus

Half Life adapts Kalfus’s title story into a feature film produced by the SoderburghClooney&Co. movie cartel. It premieres in the U.S. tomorrow night on HBO.

What I respect most about Kalfus’s story “Pu-239” is his willingness to take risks. Writing about Russia is an inherently dangerous endeavor for an American writer, but Kalfus’s combination of a character – a nuclear plant technician sickened by radiation after an accident – with ‘90s Russia, rarely feels touristy. Kalfus instead shows Moscow through the eyes of the technician, Berezin, as he drives through the city, recognizing landmarks he’s seen on television but wondering why advertisements aren’t written in Russian.

Other than a few gratuitous sightseeing details used to plant the story in a time frame, “Pu-239” flows naturally as it shows a dying man removed from his usual environment. I won’t write more about Berezin’s actions and their consequences, but I will say that I think they fit the era perfectly. I admire Kalfus’s ability to write a story about radiation poisoning and plutonium that is both tragic and laugh-out-loud funny at the end.

Unfortunately, a review in Variety indicates that Scott Burns’s big/small screen adaptation is “an uncomfortable and unsatisfying sit.” I’m not surprised: it would have been tough to transfer the story’s atomic metaphors and psychological subtleties to commercial film. You can read the start of the story on the New York Times site.

The book Pu-239 also includes a story, “Anzhelika, 13,” that Kalfus says is related to Liudmila Ulitskaya’s “March 1953” (“Второго марта того же года...”). Pu-239 includes four other short stories plus “Peredelkino,” a novella about Soviet writers in the ‘60s that makes for a nice breather from Tolstaya’s post-nuclear world. I’ll write more on those soon…

Edit: Review of the film from the New York Times.

Books in this posting:
Kalfus Books on Amazon
Glas 6: Jews and Strangers (New Russian Writing, Vol 6, includes Ulitskaya's "March 1953")

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Russian "Big Book" Award 2007 Internet Voting Winners

"The most popular Russian writers are Liudmilla Ulitskaya, Dina Rubina, Viktor Pelevin"
-Большая книга (Big Book Award) site

Okay, I know I'm picky, but a more truthful subheadline would refer to this troika as the most popular Russian literary fiction writers. Big Book's system neatly combines critical views with popularity: literary critics nominate finalists, then readers vote for their favorites over the Internet and a jury determines who wins prizes.

Although 2007's Internet vote winners for audience favorites haven't yet been translated into English, all three authors have written books that are available in translation.

Liudmila Ulitskaya's Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) took first place among readers. Ulitskaya wrote the book because she wanted to tell the story of Brother Daniel, a monk who converted from Judaisim during World War 2, in her own way. I'm looking forward to reading it: Ulitskaya is a rare post-Soviet writer who has achieved critical and commercial success by filling her books with vivid characters and situations that make reading feel easy. They also have enough depth to encourage rereading.

Three Ulitskaya books are available in English: two collections of novellas and stories, Весёлые похороны (The Funeral Party) and Сонечка (Sonechka); and the novel Медея и её дети (Medea and Her Children). The Funeral Party, about people who gather to witness a friend's last days, and Medea, a portrait of an extended family, both feel like collections of quirky characters linked by common situations. I don't particularly like that type of construction, though Ulitskaya's people and places in these works often have enough charm to keep me interested. If you're not as tied to plot movement and linear stories as I am, you may enjoy them quite a bit.

, about a woman who might be said to prefer reading fiction to facing life, is more realized as a story, though it veers away from Sonechka for some time, to describe another character who will change Sonechka's life. I think the most intriguing aspect of Sonechka for American readers will be Ulitskaya's descriptions of relationships, aging, and how women see themselves. Sonechka's choices (which I won't reveal) toward the end of the story may come as a surprise or shock to Americans, but a friend from the Former Soviet Union reminded me that Russian women perceive themselves differently as they age.

I hope that more of Ulitskaya's books will be translated into English soon. My two current favorite Ulitskaya novels -- Казус Кукоцкого (The Kukotskii Case) and Искренне ваш Шурик (Sincerely Yours, Shurik) -- have yet to appear in English. Kukotskii, about a doctor and his family, won the 2001 Russian Booker prize, and Shurik looks at a young man who tries to please everyone. Both books already exist in many languages other than English.

Dina Rubina won second place among readers with На солнечной стороне улицы (On the Sunny Side of the Street), which was also nominated for the 2006 Russian Booker. I haven't read it yet: I'm still working on her Вот идёт Мессия! (Here Comes the Messiah), a postmodern novel that mixes plot lines as it shows emigre life in Israel. Many of the vignettes are very nicely written and quite humorous, but I don't like the constant shifts between sets of characters. Only Rubina's Messiah has been translated into English, though other books are available in other languages.

Several books by Viktor Pelevin, who won third place with Ампир В ("Ampir V," get it?), have already been translated into English, though it's tough for me to understand why he fascinates American publishers. Then again, I may have started with the wrong book: Generation П, which was inexplicably "translated" into English as Homo Zapiens. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, with certain pop (literally) culture references and a post-perestroika combination of drear and hope, but the whole thing rapidly degenerates into a messy mass that involves channeling Che Guevara through a Ouija board, advertising, and mushroom-induced strolls. I might have enjoyed Generation П more if its characters felt more like people than props for Pelevin to express ideas. My Russian reader friends don't like Pelevin much, but some Russian readers' comments on online forums seem to recommend Чапаев и пустота (Chapaev and Emptiness, in the Buddha's Little Finger collection) and Оман Ра (Omon Ra) as favorites.

Edit: Post corrected on November 22, 2007.

Books mentioned in this post:
Books by Ulitskaya on Amazon
Dina Rubina's Here Comes the Messiah!
Books by Pelevin on Amazon

Friday, November 9, 2007

Reading Russian Classics Needn't Be Painful!

Who would have thought that the novel no high school student has ever finished reading would make such engrossing theater?
-"Dostoevsky's Homicidal Student, the 90-Minute Version," The New York Times, November 9, 2007

Maybe I should demand a correction from Times: I did finish Crime and Punishment in high school. Trust me, I do have a sense of humor, but sometimes it gets tedious to read hyperbolic references to Russian literature in the mainstream press... Nobody has ever finished Crime and Punishment before retirement!... War and Peace, that Everest of novels, has littered the path to enlightenment with oxygen-deprived bodies for over a century!

So what's the problem? Russian lit just needs some better P.R. Yes, many Russian novels are quite long, and many have portentous titles. For me, that's a big part of their appeal. If I like a book, I don't want it to end. And what good is a book if it doesn't consider something serious, whether through comedy or tragedy?

In truth, when you reduce most novels -- from Danielle Steele to Dennis Lehane to Dostoevsky -- down to bare motifs, most turn out to address life, love, and death, with a few subplots thrown in. One Russian theorist, Vladimir Propp, analyzed fairy tales and found only 31 basic plot turns and 8 characters. Take a look, and you'll find that many of Propp's functions apply to literature for adults, too.

Joking that Russian novels are all long and boring might score easy laughs for journalists and readers who haven't touched the books, but there are plenty of relatively simple ways to make even the longest novels more accessible:

Start Short. Sometimes a big masterpiece isn't the best introduction to a writer, particularly if you're not taking a college class. Read something smaller -- a short story or novella -- but well-regarded first to get a feel for the author's views and styles. Then work up to the doorstops. For example:

Pushkin: Try Повести Белкина (The Belkin Tales) before Евгений Онегин (Eugene Onegin). The Belkin stories may be prose to Onegin's poetry, but they're short, very enjoyable, and an important part of Russian literary history.

Dostoevsky: Try the shorter, romantic Белые ночи (White Nights) or spite-laden Записки из подполья (Notes from Undergound) before Crime and Punishment or The Brothers K. These novellas show different sides of Dostoevsky's psychological approach to fiction.

Tolstoy: Novellas like Хаджи Мурат (Khadzhi Murat) and Казаки (The Cossacks) show a lot about Tolstoy's philosophical views, including what happens when cultures come together.

Don't Panic about Russian Names. Some translations of novels include lists of characters, along with nicknames. Make your own if the book doesn't have one. If you want to learn a little more about Russian names, you might want to read this PDF handout that I wrote. You might also like this fairly lengthy list of diminutive forms (nicknames).

See the Mini-Series or Movie. I love to imagine scenes when I read, but sometimes seeing them illuminates meaning: my high school English teacher helped us through Crime and Punishment by showing a PBS mini-series. And even after reading Master and Margarita twice, it took watching the Russian mini-series adaptation for me to truly grasp the horror of what Bulgakov wrote about Satan's ball.

Read the Introduction. Yes, I often skip author bios and introductions, too. But even my small Signet Classic paperback edition of Crime and Punishment from high school includes concise information that illuminates what happens in the book. Background on Dostoevsky mentions his commuted death sentence and philosophy, and the translator's introduction notes the roots of many of the characters' names.

Find It in Translation. Literary translation requires endless decisions, so results vary a lot. Should the translator divide long sentences? Repeat the repetition of the original? Test read the first few pages of different translations to see what fits your taste. If you compare translations of Dostoevsky, you are likely to see that some translators feel compelled to simplify his writing. English and American editions may differ greatly, too.

In the end, any translation is a compromise -- most people would read originals, not translations, if they could -- so find whatever will keep you reading. Don't worry if the translation with the best reviews feels worse to you than an older or cheaper version with no blurbs. Take what you will enjoy: even if that version is a little further from the original than another, you're still much closer to the author's message than if you hadn't read the book at all.

Some recommended listings mentioned in this posting:
Crime and Punishment
The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin
The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Modern Library)
The Cossacks and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Fiction for Revolution Day

Today's date felt suspiciously important when I wrote it, but it took a news report on to realize why: today is Revolution Day. Yes, indeed, that photo shows the old Soviet flag in front of the Russian Duma, as a prop for a "meeting" of 7,000 communists.

Revolution is one of the first things that foreigners think about when Russia is mentioned. But when I started to think about favorite books related to revolution, I struggled. Of course there's Boris Pasternak's Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago), one of my all-time favorites. It's easy to recommend on any day of the year.

I can also recommend Aleksandr Blok's atmospheric poem Двенадцать (The Twelve), which, like Zhivago, includes religious themes along with its political and ideological observations. The poem was written in January 1918, when the streets probably were as snowy and windy as the city the poem describes. Although Blok was generally considered sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, the violence of the poem -- and its ending -- makes one wonder. Part of my enjoyment of The Twelve is that I hear voices and rhythm when I read it: a theater from Arkhangel'sk performed this and several other poems in Portland during the early '90s.

My biggest difficulty with many novels (poetry is another matter) about revolution and revolutionaries is that their authors often focus most on making political points. The majority now read more as period pieces with historical importance or samples of ideology, than as art. That can make the books interesting to analyze, though they may not feel satisfying if you're looking for recreational reading. Keep that in mind as you read these descriptions!

Что делать? (What Is to Be Done?), by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. A dubious classic with the subtitle "Tales about New People". This book has taken a lot of abuse over the years because it's ideological, not literary: Chernyshevsky himself evidently admitted it wasn't very good. The book was on my graduate reading list, and I was saved by an abridged edition that I read through quickly -- sometimes the obviousness of political books makes them easy to read! This one also has a catchy title. Best of all, with modern technology, you can now download the Russian original onto your cell phone!

Мать (Mother), by Maksim Gorky. One of the quintessential Russian novels about revolutionaries. That doesn't mean it's good: I read the first half of this book, about a group of young revolutionaries who get help from a member's mother, and then couldn't go on. Here's what I wrote about it for a workshop last year:

Maxim Gorky’s “Mother” was so awful that I couldn’t even finish it as an example of Soviet-era kitsch. It holds moderate interest for its mixture of pre-revolutionary socialist propaganda and religious motifs, but it is inadequate to simply say that the characters are clichéd and the plot is predictable. The book itself is a work of determinism; my Russian friends have always complained about being forced to read it. I do recommend reading a portion of it to get a feel for what passed as “literature” during the Soviet period and to understand why many see Gor’kii as untalented. (I also did not enjoy his Childhood very much.)

Аэлита (Aelita)
by Aleksei Tolstoy. If revolution on the Red Planet -- yes, I do mean Mars -- is your thing, this is the book for you! It's a quirky classic that's not very well known outside Russia. Here's what I wrote about Aelita for my workshop:

What can be said about Aleksei Tolstoy’s “Aelita,” a book that describes a 1920s trip to Mars? This is a very strange piece of work that combines, among other things, science fiction (and the inevitable existentialist musings), an odd bit of socialist realism, giant spiders, and a love story. Although Tolstoy was a decent writer and the account of early space flight is entertaining – a matter of days from Earth to Mars? -- I found the book rather sloppy. Adapted into a silent film, Aelita, Queen of Mars, available on NetFlix. For his efforts, Tolstoi has a crater on Mars named after him.

Воскресение (Resurrection), by Lev Tolstoy. This last of Tolstoy’s major novels is a medium-length (400+ pages) book that looks at how a man reacts when a woman he seduced years ago has trouble with the law. Revolutionaries come into the last third of the book, though I won't say how... Although much here is fairly obvious, the book should be particularly interesting to people who have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina – you’ll see some stylistic differences and notice some common themes. Tolstoy sold the book earlier than he might have wanted to because he wanted to give money to a religious sect that he supported. The book evidently caused quite a ruckus in Russia because of its scathing portrayals of the legal system and clergy.

Конармия (Red Cavalry),
by Isaac Babel. I definitely can't say I enjoyed these short stories by Babel: I read them because I had to, and I found their violence quite difficult to take. That said, many hold them in high regard, and it's tough not to have a certain respect for a Jewish writer who rode with Cossacks during the revolution. Lionel Trilling's introduction to my old edition (New American Library, 1955, pg. 11) of Babel stories includes this line: "It was impossible not to be overcome with admiration for Red Cavalry, but it was not at all the sort of book that I had wanted the culture of the Revolution to give me."

Two other books: Тихий Дон (And Quiet Flows the Don), by Mikhail Sholokhov, also looks at Cossacks; it helped win Sholokhov a Nobel Prize. Not a favorite from my grad school reading list, perhaps in part because my edition was blurbed by Maksim Gorky, who compared it to War and Peace. (No comment there.) There is also Бесы (The Possessed), by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which might be described as a psychological sketch of revolutionaries. This is one that I've been meaning to reread for years. It has gotten a lot of attention in recent years because of its parallels to 21st-century terrorism.

Edit: I neglected to mention a favorite title: Valentin Kataev's Белеет парус одинокий (A White Sail Gleams). This is a quirky book because it mixes ideology with coming of age as it looks at the 1905 revolution and two boys in Odessa. A friend who read it in childhood lent it to me, and I enjoyed it, too. And another: Nikolai Ostrovskii's Как закалялась сталь (How the Steel Was Tempered) is a classic socialist realist novel that fictionalizes Ostrovskii's own experiences fighting in the Civil War and later becoming blind and paralyzed. I don't know how I could forget that one, either!

For more ideas on books about revolution, be sure to visit SovLit -- they specialize in this stuff and have lots of background material to help you get the most out of your reading!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Little Existentialism -- Two Short Novels by Vladimir Makanin

How many languages have a diminutive for "existential"? There is at least one: Russian, with экзистенциалка (ekzistentsialka). It's not important that the word is rare and a Google search only pops 23 results in the nominative case. It exists. And why shouldn't it? Some of us have tender feelings for stark, dark novels and movies about life, death, and the choices they force.

If you've been yearning to read a couple of very accessible existential novellas, I have two suggestions: Vladimir Makanin's Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead). Escape Hatch was nominated for the first-ever Russian Booker Prize in 1992, and it has been neatly combined with the complementary Long Road for a volume of translations. (This piece describes the book nicely, but contains a lot of spoilers for The Long Road. This review also has a few spoilers.)

Escape Hatch begins with a cat standing at a door, blocking her master by not deciding whether to stay in or go out. The paragraph sums up a lot: the cat's person, Kliucharev (the root, kliuch, means "key"), is also torn between two places. He lives on the earth's surface, where life is dark, hungry, and violent, but uses a hole to climb underground, where lighting is natural and people enjoy good food and wine.

The hole's opening shrinks during the course of the book, making passage more dangerous. Meanwhile, Makanin examines the stark dichotomies of Kliucharev's life and choices: up or down, dark or light, crowd or individual, freedom or entrapment, life and death. In one scene, Kliucharev squeezes below ground, landing in a cafe, where he is offered a nice meal, a shot, and, most important, the chance to listen to conversation about Dostoevsky and the undesirability of happiness based on the unhappiness of others. He considers himself an intellectual, so the conversation causes him to come to life, writes Makanin, like a fish returning to water.

Escape Hatch is oddly suspenseful, whether Makanin shows Kliucharev navigating a crowd, a deserted street, or the hatch. Makanin also includes some nice touches, like comparing Kliucharev to a worm as he crawls through the dirt... years before genomic sequencing showed how much human and worm genes hold in common. The book's setting, though Russian, is left vague, and it's unclear what caused a societal breakdown.

The Long Road Ahead has a much different feel. It is less schematic than Escape Hatch, and has a dystopian bent: there haven't been wars for 200 years, and society lives with the comforting idea that food is synthetic, eliminating the need for killing, say, cows. Of course not all is as it seems, and Makanin's nameless main character, a man on a business trip, becomes caught up in situations that make him feel trapped.

I normally don't take well to postmodern devices that twist plots and narration, but Makanin uses one in The Long Road in a way that, I think, works because it doesn't distract from the meaning of the story. The ending combines dread, hope, and strange beauty in a way that crystallizes Makanin's ideas.

The pleasure of reading Makanin's fiction is that he successfully demonstrates his philosophy and ideas through plot and characters, rather than lectures, making even the strangest actions and places feel quite real. Makanin's unpretentious approach provides stories that encourage, rather than coerce, the reader to explore layers of meaning.

These two short novels fit nicely with comments that Makanin made about his philosophy of life and death during a 2004 interview on the Russian talk show Ночной полёт (Night Flight). Although Makanin spoke about his newer book Испуг (Fear), about an old man's love for a much-younger woman, his talk about the fear of death and loneliness complemented Escape Hatch and The Long Road. He also reinforced the optimism that I felt when reading his work, particularly The Long Road. When people become fearful of life, Makanin suggested that they simply live their lives. Prodded by the moderator to clarify, he said that we should love but also remember that we will die. Something about Makanin was endearingly sincere.

Two other translations of Makanin are available in English:

-Утрата (The Loss), a volume containing a novella and two short stories.
-Стол, покрытый сукном и с графином в середине (Baize-Covered Table with Decanter), which won the Russian Booker in 1993. This novel is about interrogation; it creates an atmosphere that felt, to me, far more claustrophobic than the tunnel in Escape Hatch. Although I had looked forward to reading it, I just couldn't get into Table. I'll try again someday, but I think Table suffered by comparison to the imaginative novellas I read: Table felt less interesting because interrogation has, unfortunately, been all too common a theme in Russian life and literature.

Vladimir Makanin Books on Amazon

Friday, November 2, 2007

Бестселлеры -- Bestsellers, Moscow-style

Bestselling books last week at Moscow's Biblio-Globus? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, a cookbook for the lazy, plus self-help books on smoking cessation, talking to your child, career advice for women, and how rational people make stupid mistakes that can ruin their lives.

That's not all, of course. Romance and detectives were represented, too, and there were some translations from French plus, of all things, William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

There was also a little space for Russian literary fiction... whatever that means:

Vladimir Voinovich recently published his third (and final, he says) novel about Private Ivan Chonkin. The Chonkin books are Soviet classics, satires about Soviet life and bureaucracy that are easier read than described. I also enjoyed Voinovich's Монументальная пропаганда (Monumental Propaganda), which picks up a tangent from the Chonkin books. Here's what I wrote about it for a literature workshop:
Vladimir Voinovich’s Monumental Propaganda isn’t a Soviet-era work but this satire begins in the 1940s and ends in the ‘90s, covering the life of a woman who likes Stalin so much that she has a statue of him put up in her city. When the statue is taken down during the Khrushchev era, she brings it to her apartment, where she cleans and talks to it. The book lags a bit in the beginning (despite a lot of humor) but is a good portrait of someone who sticks by the Stalin mythology – I saw people like this character marching in the streets of Moscow and found the book very believable in its look at how politics affects real lives. Voinovich is extremely popular; his Chonkin books are must-reads, and some of his short stories are also very good.
Evgenii Grishkovets's Следы на мне (Traces on Me)is a collection of short stories. Here's my translation of part of the description on Biblio-Globus: "Grishkovets discusses people who played an important role in his life. Some stories, some events -- nothing exotic. Impressions and experiences that are more important than events." The focus is not on the book's "heroes" but on life and self, adds the summary.

It's oddly frustrating for a writer to read Grishkovets: I think many of us probably think we could have written his books and stories. They feel very simple, in both style and content. But that simplicity -- and, even more important, an unabashed sincerity -- have made Grishkovets uniquely popular. He examines small things in life that almost any reader can relate to: waking up and feeling like you're sick, obsession with being in love, or finding a pre-warmed seat on public transportation. Russians enjoy Grishkovets's writing, music, and stage productions enough that I've seen him in American Express ads. (Member since when, you wonder? I don't remember.) I particularly like Grishkovets's spoken songs and think his short novel, Рубашка (The Shirt), would do well in translation. It is also a nice book for students of Russian because it is short and fairly easy to read.

Post Scriptum: Perennial Bestsellers. Sergei Luk'ianenko and Dar'ia Dontsova are also on the list. Luk'ianenko wrote Ночной дозор (Night Watch) and its sequels, which have been adapted into two blockbuster Russian films that fall somewhere into the science fiction and fantasy realms. They show the struggle between people representing light and dark, though Luk'ianenko says they are better described as altruists and egoists. I read the first half of the first book and thought it was just okay. It quickly felt repetitive (or perhaps predictable), though I rather liked the casual narrative voice.
Dontsova has written several series of "ironic detective" novels with (translated) titles like Kama Sutra for Mickey Mouse and The Frog of the Baskervilles. She is fantastically popular, in large part, I suspect, because her books are optimistic and show everyday women of various social classes solving crimes, lovin' it at McDonald's, and holding extended households together. Dontsova's books are not literary (or likely to be translated), and I've found that some of them could use more editing, but they're predictable in a good way: she doesn't stray from her genre, and all the books I've read wrap up happily.
At the end of a busy and stressful day, many Russian women want something light, not a postmodern prize winner. Incidentally, optimism is a big part of Dontsova's life: I first learned about her when she was on a Russian talk show, speaking about how she survived cancer. Dontsova's best-selling book this time around is the cookbook for lazy people!

In this posting:
Vladimir Voinovich Books on Amazon
Night Watch on Amazon

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Remembering Stalin's Victims

Earlier this week, Russian human rights organizations led memorial ceremonies to remember people who were imprisoned and killed during the Stalin-era repression. I remember some Russians telling me in the early ‘90s that they had gotten over the trauma of learning about the millions of deaths of the Soviet period. The necessity of reading Solzhenitsyn, one man told me, has passed. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now.

I've listed below some works of fiction that look at Soviet-era repression from varying perspectives. Rather than writing a lot about them, I’ve linked titles and author names to background information and reviews, many of which make for interesting reading themselves, as reflections of their times and their writers.

Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales) by Varlam Shalamov – Sparely written short stories about prison camps. Often included in anthologies.

В круге первом (The First Circle) and Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThe First Circle is a long novel that looks at life in a sharashka, basically a scientific lab staffed by prisoners. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is much shorter and details the difficulties of prison camp.

Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat), by Anatolii Rybakov, leads off a trilogy that chronicles what happens when a young man is exiled for making “mistakes.” As one Russian reader noted on an Internet forum, the book reads along easily but is difficult to take because Rybakov wrote truthfully, leaving an unpleasant feeling about what happens. The trilogy, particularly the first volume, is well worth the time and the unpleasant feelings.

Софья Петровна (Sofia Petrovna), a short and simply written novel by Lydia Chukovskaya, looks at how disappearances affect the life of one woman.


Anna Akhmatova’s poetry cycle Реквием (Requiem) is very powerful.

Nonfiction books include Solzhenitsyn’s lengthy Архипелаг ГУЛаг (Gulag Archipelago), Evgeniia Ginzburg’s Крутой маршрут (Journey Into the Whirlwind), and Nadezhda Mandel’shtam’s Hope Against Hope.

Good books about other time periods include Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Записки из мёртвого дома (House of the Dead), which includes some very descriptive and emotional scenes of prison life, and poet Irina Ratushinskaya’s memoir about imprisonment during the Brezhnev era, Серыйцвет надежды (Gray Is the Color of Hope).

Books mentioned in this posting:

Kolyma Tales (Twentieth-Century Classics)
The First Circle (European Classics)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Novel
Children of the Arbat
Sofia Petrovna (European Classics)
The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956
Journey into the Whirlwind (Helen and Kurt Wolff Books)
Hope Against Hope: A Memoir
Memoirs from the House of the Dead (Oxford World's Classics (Oxford University Press).)
Grey Is Color of Hope