Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy 2008! -- С новым годом!

If the Russian belief “as you greet the new year, so you will live it” proves true, I look forward to my 2008 reading after a so-so 2007. I met 2007 reading Vasilii Aksenov’s uneven Московская сага (Generations of Winter) trilogy, leading to a year of uneven, mostly post-Soviet, reading. I’m finishing a very satisfying Dovlatov kick as I see in 2008, so hope that’s a positive omen for next year’s reading!

Favorites for the year. Vladimir Makanin's short novels Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead). Sure they’re a little dreary, but they’re so good I bought them as a Christmas gift for my brother. (Previous entry)

Favorite post-Soviet book not by Makanin. Petr Aleshkovskii’s (Peter Aleskhovsky) Жизнеописание хорька (Skunk: A Life). I have no idea why the translator or publisher felt compelled to change the title character from ferret to skunk, but you have been warned! Aleshkovsii’s conglomeration of genres – notably life of saint with mysticism, crime, road novel, adventure, coming of age, fable – doesn’t always mesh, but there are lots of high points. My favorite episodes are set in the wilderness, where Ferret (instinctively, of course) fits with nature better than with people in his native town. Less a novel than a fictional biography. (Translation excerpt)

Biggest overall surprise. Somehow, I made only one dip back to the 19th century during 2007: Dostoevsky’s Insulted and Injured, which I was moved to read when I saw that a Moscow theater had adapted it into a musical.

Most unexpected reading. Arkadii Gaidar’s “Судьба барабанщика” (“The Fate of the Drummer”). I read about this story and its significance in a film journal and pulled it off my shelf… I’m not sure if this novella is available in English translation, but it’s an intriguing and entertaining combination of a “Home Alone”-type young adult adventure story with the author’s personal confessions. Gaidar is best known as a writer of children’s stories, but memories of his excessive actions during the Civil War always haunted him. Former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar is Arkadii Gaidar’s grandson.

Best unexpected book loan. Four volumes of Sergei Dovlatov. It’s been odd spending the holidays with Dovlatov’s dark humor, beginning with Компромисс (The Compromise) and moving on to Иностранка (A Foreign Woman). A Foreign Woman, a novel about the émigré community in New York, disappointed a little after Compromise, though I’m glad I read it. I think Dovlatov works best with linked stories: in Чемодан (The Suitcase) he tells of clothing he packed to bring to America, remembering how he acquired each item in the USSR. Previous entry on The Compromise.

Best book-length nonfiction. Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers by default since I rarely read book-length nonfiction. I’m reading a bit at a time, filling in the gaps of my knowledge of Stalin-era history. The book sometimes feels overfilled by stories from individual families – there are many – but the stories are also the book’s strength. Fortunately, Figes places these accounts in context, sometimes gently reminding the reader who’s who. The book has enough background to be an introduction to the era for general readers but plenty of details to satisfy people like me, whose knowledge of the time is quite good but not very methodical. I’m especially interested in the story of writer Konstantin Simonov, whose life Figes describes in detail. My biggest complaint about The Whisperers is pretty minor: the book is so physically heavy that it’s difficult to read!

2008 reading. Beyond finishing The Whisperers, I’ve already got a shelf full of books I can’t wait to read in 2008, including my Russian Reading Challenge books, Aleksandr Kuprin’s Duel, and a trilogy by Aleksei Tolstoi.

I wish everyone a very happy new year’s holiday and plenty of quiet time to read lots of good books in 2008! С новым годом!

Books on Amazon:

Makanin's Escape Hatch & the Long Road Ahead: Two Novellas

Aleshkovsky's Skunk A Life(Glas 15)

Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Electricity + Anna + Minaev = Blog Entry

Happy Power Engineering Day! What better way to celebrate electricity than reading some Andrei Platonov, who once worked as an electrical engineer?

One fitting selection is Platonov’s short story “Родина электричества” (“The Motherland of Electricity”), which I recently read and enjoyed. The narrator of this quirky 1926 story walks for days to reach a town needing drought relief and help with an electrical system that’s a relic from the White Army. Platonov covers a lot in 10 pages, touching on religious, political, technological, and mythical themes.

“The Motherland of Electricity” is included in Soul, a new collection of Robert Chandler’s translations of Platonov stories published by the New York Review of Books. Soul contains an extensive introduction by John Berger.

Name Day for Annas. Sorry, Ms. Karenina, but my favorite literary Anna is Akhmatova. It’s worth listening to Akhmatova read her own poetry even if you don’t understand Russian. This online anthology includes two recordings of Akhmatova, some poems in Russian and English, biographical information, illustrations, and links. The photo of Joseph Brodsky at Akhmatova’s funeral illustrates their closeness.

Sergei Minaev in the New York Times. Today’s New York Times included a “Saturday Profile” of Sergei Minaev, author of the best-selling novel Духless (Soulless). Soulless is an unfortunate book: it might have become something quite good had Minaev and his editor been patient enough to work through another draft or two. Decadence alone does not a novel make.

The Times article quotes Vasilii Aksyonov saying that “Minaev’s hero is a superfluous man.” That’s true, but the book’s lack of structure and real characters doom it from contributing to the pantheon of superfluous men in Russian literature, antiheroes like Lermontov’s Pechorin and Goncharov’s Oblomov. Minaev’s characters are conscious that they’re a lost generation, but Soulless was probably successful primarily for its voyeuristic look into another lifestyle, like Oksana Robski’s Casual. I hesitate to say that Soulless probably won’t be translated into English: Casual already made it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dovlatov’s Uncompromising "Compromise"

Sergei Dovlatov’s Компромисс (The Compromise) prompts recognition. Though the novel’s narrator, a heavy-drinking journalist named Sergei Dovlatov, recounts a dozen unevenly sized slices of life set in Soviet Estonia, most readers will find bits of themselves in The Compromise.

Dovlatov looks at compromise and honesty through his vignettes, each consisting of a newspaper clipping plus Dovlatov’s account of gathering information for the article. These loosely linked stories show his boss’s ridiculous demands, typical bureaucratic hassles, and the pervasive lack of logic in life. Dovlatov’s job takes him to a birth house, a dairy farm, and a cemetery, among other places. He makes frequent use of vodka and humor during his travels.

Dovlatov’s co-workers, friends, and sources drop in and out of his narratives in various levels of development but still feel lifelike: we can fill in missing details. We already know them, just as we know Dovlatov, even if we’ve never lived in Soviet Tallinn. We’re all imperfect humans with a dose of Dovlatov in us: we’ve all been forced into situations that made us feel compromised, used, and alienated.

Dovlatov is a friendly and inherently unreliable storyteller who crafts his tales with a simple, elegant style that makes his characters and situations feel universal. I think familiarity is what makes Dovlatov’s sad humor so funny. The situations and complications that he presents – as at a funeral where he becomes a pallbearer despite not knowing the deceased – are predictable.

But predictable works here. Even when I knew what would happen, I wanted to guess and then hear Dovlatov’s twists on familiar stories. And I wanted to empathize with someone I know, someone who, at his core, resembles me. I often found myself simultaneously laughing out loud and shaking my head while I read The Compromise. It felt just right.

Some aspects of The Compromise – specifics about everyday Soviet life – might feel unfamiliar to non-Russian readers, but Dovlatov provides an apt introduction to the warped rules that pervaded public and private lives. They, of course, pop up everywhere. No matter how we escape our individual problems – through vodka, beer, TV, or, yes, even fiction -- I think the layered narratives of The Compromise, which reveal paradoxical truths and metaphors about life, should appeal to readers everywhere. Maybe they will also help us to laugh a bit more at ourselves.

SUMMARY: Very highly recommended for readers who enjoy simple, well-crafted prose about everyday events that have larger significance. Aspects of Soviet humor and life that appeal to some people (like me!) may feel “depressing” to others. The Compromise is, for me, an example of what fiction should be: stories that read easily when one is tired at the end of the day but carry ideas that seep into the subconscious and attach themselves.

Note: According to my borrowed Dovlatov book, the vignettes in The Compromise were written as individual stories during 1973-1980. Most did not originally include the newspaper “preambles,” which were added later to connect the episodes. Oddly, the New York Times review of The Compromise refers to 11 stories, but my Russian edition has 12…

Friday, December 14, 2007

(Ras)Putin, Robski, and “Moskva-Petushki”

A few random Russian literature news notes for the end of the week:

1. Writer Valentin Rasputin received a Russian government award -- Order for Service to the Fatherland (3rd degree) -- yesterday from Vladimir Putin. (Photo) According to the Kremlin Web site, Putin bestowed awards on 49 “outstanding Russian citizens.” Rasputin also received a special award from Big Book in November.

Putin’s speech at the Kremlin awards ceremony included this line:

Both now and in the future we must do everything we can to ensure that, along with the growth of our economic power, the people creating our national culture become household names in the rest of the world, and that Russian language and literature continue to develop as a means of interethnic and international communication.

I wonder if Putin knows about the Russian Reading Challenge

2. One of this morning’s top news stories (!) on was an item claiming that Oksana Robski, author of Casual and other bestsellers, plans to sell her house. It seems that selling tons of books isn’t enough to maintain a residence in the exclusive Rublyovka part of Moscow. Selling her Bentley would evidently only fund Robski’s expenditures for six months.

Casual fictionalizes Robski’s lifestyle. The book combines genres – primarily chick lit about the upper classes and detective – and became a huge bestseller. When I told a Russian reader friend that Casual had been translated into English, she said, “You mean someone took the time?” She and I both love a good piece of pulp fiction, but Casual lacks substance, structure, and heart. Casual is most notable as a view into Russia’s nouveau riche and for spawning copycat novels, but it’s still not very compelling. Bookslut has a full review.

3. The Biblio-Globus bestseller list for last week included a bit of a surprise: an “author’s text” edition of Venedikt Erofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line). (This summary has spoilers.) The book was written in 1970 but forbidden in the USSR until perestroika. I always wondered what I missed in my 1990 edition…

Moskva-Petushki is a tough book to summarize, but here’s what I wrote for a Soviet literature workshop last year:

Moscow to the End of the Line is the stream-of-consciousness narrative of a man who makes his way around and out of Moscow, drinking very heavily, philosophizing at times, and never seeming to make it to see the Kremlin. The book is depressing, sad, profane, and (of course) bleak, but there’s another reason it has a cult following: it is also very funny in spots, and the narrator (who coincidently shares the author’s name) shows a lot of heart. That’s why he drinks so much. Unfortunately, heart and soul are qualities that many Soviet literary characters lack. Though difficult to follow in places, this small book is a “Hit Parade” item in a large Russian on-line library.
Moscow to the End of the Line is a great example of messy postmodernism fitting a subject perfectly. And it’s just the right length. Though Moskva-Petushki won’t please everyone, it’s a minor classic.

Books in this posting:
Oksana Robski's Casual on Amazon
Erofeev's Moscow to the End of the Line on Amazon

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Of Mice, Golubchiki, and Tolstaya

Tat’iana Tolstaya’s Кысь (The Slynx) is a novel of posts: postmodern, post-Soviet, post-apocalyptic. It describes a Russian settlement, formerly Moscow, that was bombed back to, roughly, the Stone Age. The wheel was just reinvented, candles light huts, and people barter in mice, a valuable food source. The government is repressive, and its leader claims to have written all of what we know as Russian literature. Scribes copy those texts onto birch bark.

Of course there’s much more, including mutations that cause humans to grow tails, coxcombs, and claws, as well as a couple of fairly typical intellectuals who’ve survived hundreds of years to remember the old days and put up a statue of Pushkin. Tolstaya’s main character, a scribe named Benedikt, a fellow with a tail, becomes enamored with books, but he’s a bit of a blockhead so reads everything from poetry to crafts books without truly differentiating their meanings.

Despite loving dystopian novels and views of the future, I found that Tolstaya’s imaginative descriptions fail to become compelling: she creates a vivid setting but skimps on characters. Instead of creating real people, she tosses out figures to represent positions. Her primary focus is on language.

Tolstaya’s linguistic pyrotechnics in The Slynx have earned her praise from some Russian reviewers, but I found them distracting, just as I find extensive use of regional accents distracting in American novels. Characters in The Slynx make more mistakes with Russian grammar and pronunciation than typical Russian 101 students because they're barely literate, and Tolstaya invents new words to fit her “reality.”

Tolstaya’s preoccupation with language doesn’t end with spelling and grammar. The book is arranged like a primer, with each chapter named for a Cyrillic letter, some obsolete. The book is more about language, cultural literacy, and misinterpretation than anything else but these cultural aspects of the book are probably more difficult to feel in translation than in the original: two New York Times reviews (here and here) do not even allude to them.

Tolstaya quotes frequently from Russian literature, fairy tales, and other cultural materials, making the book resemble a parlor game for catching literary allusions. Tolstaya’s Big Point is stated in multiple locations: people must understand their primer basics, both for reading and life. Books are more than just collections of letters.

I agree. But the problem – and bitter irony – here is that the novel depends on superstructure plus familiar messages that, despite the originality of the setting, feel recycled from previous dystopian novels and history itself. Those don’t magically add up to good fiction any more than 26 Roman alphabet letters equal Shakespeare.

The Slynx has fans among Russian and Western readers who like wordplay and dystopias, but this reader grew impatient with its literary devices. I wanted to like The Slynx but the book's occasional moments of literary clarity and satirical humor – some of which are excellent – don’t compensate for hundreds of pages dominated by heavy-handed, self-conscious technique and messages.

SUMMARY: Recommended for readers who enjoy postmodern books where form and linguistic tricks trump or determine content. A very deep knowledge of Russian literature is a big plus. Not recommended for readers squeamish about the idea of eating mice. (Disclosure: we dispose of mice trapped in our garage and attic.) People with little patience for exclamation marks and sound effects (Eeeeeeee!!!) in fiction may also experience anxiety while reading this book.

Mentioned in this posting:
Slynx on Amazon

Sunday, December 9, 2007

"Soviet Deadpan" and Absurdity

As a self-taught observer of the absurd – my training comes from trips to the DMV, trying to converse with Russian bureaucrats, and reading about politics – it feels strange to read analysis of Daniil Kharms’s absurdist writing. Deciding what, exactly, made Kharms “weird” or absurdist feels like an inherently absurd act.

That’s not to say that “Soviet Deadpan,” George Sauders’s essay about Daniil Kharms in today’s “New York Times Book Review,” isn’t worth reading. It is! Saunders appreciates the energy and paradox of Kharms’s stories, and touches on the borders between Kharms’s narratives and what he calls “traditional stories.”

Russian literature has a long tradition of absurdity. One classic 19th century example is Nikolai Gogol’s “Нос” (“The Nose”), the tale of a man who wakes up without his nose, only to find the nose on the street, now man-sized, dressed in a nice uniform, and exiting a carriage. Gary Saul Morson’s article “’Absolute nonsense’ – Gogol’s Tales” from The New Criterion provides a wonderfully readable introduction to Gogol’s world.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Собачье сердце (Heart of a Dog) is another favorite that combines absurdity with fantasy as it shows, among other things, what happens when a man’s organs are transplanted into a stray dog. (For one thing, he becomes head of cat control…)

Sergei Dovlatov takes a very different angle on absurdity in Soviet life and journalism in the book I’m reading now, Компромисс (The Compromise). So far The Compromise is nominally realistic – none of Bulgakov’s talking animals or Gogol’s walking body parts – as it addresses the meaning of truth in the USSR. I’m not worried if using “realistic” to describe absurdity sounds paradoxical: that’s what absurdity is all about.

An earlier Lizok's Bookshelf piece on Kharms: “The Charms of Kharms

Edit, 13 December: For more on Kharms, check out "It's Kharms week, here" on Languor Management, a blog that also includes author Kevin Kinsella's poetry translations.

Mentioned in this posting:
Daniil Kharms book on Amazon
Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog on Amazon
Dovlatov's The Compromise

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Russian Reading Challenge 2008

Are there four Russian novels, plays, story collections, or other books that you've always meant to read but never found time for? I'm sure there are! 2008 is your year.

The Russian Reading Challenge 2008 blog encourages visitors to read four Russian-related books between January 1 and December 31, 2008. The best part about the challenge format is that nobody will be alone -- dozens of participants should mean lots of discussion.

I'm going to use the Challenge as a way to assuage my guilt about missing these classics for too long:

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Бесы (The Possessed)

Nikolai Gogol’s Ревизор (Inspector General) plus stories I haven’t read in Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки (Village Evenings near Dikanka -- not the video game!) and Миргород (Mirgorod)

Vasilii Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate)

Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (Foundation Pit) or, as a backup, Ювенильное море (Juvenile Sea)

For now I'm reading and enjoying Sergei Dovlatov's Компромисс (The Compromise), a very funny-but-sad autobiographical novel about working as a journalist in Soviet Estonia. A friend lent me four volumes of Dovlatov -- t0 be sure I'd find something I liked! -- and I may be reading it all cover-to-cover if everything is this good.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

2007 Russian Booker Goes to Ilichevskii

Aleksandr Ilichevskii (Alexander Ilichevsky) won the 2007 Russian Booker prize for his novel Matisse, acing out Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator), which won the Big Book prize in late November. Ilichevskii received $20,000 for his efforts.

Ulitskaya is, by far, the best known of the six finalists, and this analytical piece in the English Moscow News, by Vladimir Kozlov, summarizes the Booker’s “identity crisis.” I'm sure the Booker's focus on works by relatively obscure writers is one reason you shouldn't expect (m)any of the finalists to be translated soon: usually only two or three of a year’s finalists seem to appear in English. The inaugural prize was awarded in 1992.

The remaining 2007 finalists, each of whom received $2,000 for being named to the Booker short list, are:

Andrei Dmitriev for Бухта радости (Bay of Hope)

Aleks Tarn for Бог не играет в кости (God Doesn’t Play Dice)

Iurii Maletskii for Конец иглы (The Point of the Needle)

I’ve only read works by Ulitskaya and Dmitriev. Some of my thoughts on Ulitskaya’s books are on this page.

Dmitriev’s writing can be quite dense, laden with literary and religious references and symbolism, but the three novellas that I read differed so much in style that I’d be afraid to generalize anything about his writing. This Iowa State page includes excellent analysis. Dmitriev’s (A Turn in the River), the most difficult of the three novellas that I read, was a Booker finalist in 1996.

Edit, January 8, 2008: Here is an English-language summary of Ulitskaya's Daniel Shtein.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Bright Spot or a Dark Cloud?: Andrei Gelasimov’s “Zhanna”

Are you an optimist or pessimist? If you’re not sure, try reading Andrei Gelasimov’s short story “Жанна” – “Zhanna” transliterated but “Joan” in this translation.

One Russian site hosting the story includes comments from readers and Gelasimov himself, who writes that people find either optimism and light or darkness and Satanism in the story. Gelasimov concludes that it’s not the story that causes the polarization but readers themselves, who interpret the story’s problems from their own perspectives.

A first-person narration about a teenage mother’s life with her disabled son does indeed sound quite gloomy, but Gelasimov infuses both his heroine and his story with a subtle sense of hope.

“Zhanna” is written in a stripped-down style that doesn’t overload the reader’s senses with superfluous emotion, imagery, or pop culture references: Gelasimov includes just enough of these details to unify the narrative. Zhanna tells her story as an actual teenage girl might, jumping between doctor appointments, her mother’s dreams of France, childhood memories, and her son’s difficulties. Her life and troubles feel quite real and, though I don’t often like a flat-sounding narrative voice, this one fits the character.

This English translation by Alexei Bayer captures the mood and simplicity of the Russian original quite nicely. Though I find the choice of “Joan” instead of “Zhanna” for the narrator’s name somewhat curious, I suspect “Joan” makes the story feel more universal to non-Russian readers. Incidentally, the story mentions a song about a stewardess: it is “Стюардесса по имени Жанна” (“A Stewardess Named Zhanna”), Vladimir Presniakov’s irritatingly catchy perestroika-era pop hit. (Bonus link! Presniakov singing the song on YouTube.)

I wish I could list other works by Gelasimov that have been translated into English, but I don’t know of any. I enjoyed Gelasimov’s novel Год обмана (The Year of the Lie) very much, particularly a section of diary entries that were published separately as “Нежный возраст” (“The Sensitive Age”). The novel blends genres – coming of age, action – with humor and observations about life and lies, creating a satisfying and touching picture of one contemporary Russian family’s quirky life. On, Gelasimov recommends The Year of the Lie as a fun text and “Zhanna” for its sincerity. I concur.

A Related Reading. Thematically, “Zhanna” reminded me a bit of a novella by Liudmila Petrushevskaia, Время ночь (The Time: Night), a first-person narrative about three generations of dysfunctional family problems. Both stories have also been read in theaters as solo shows. Although I recommend The Time: Night as a look at societal breakdown in the late Soviet period, it takes a hysterical tone and feels claustrophobic, contrasting with Zhanna’s even tone and emptying apartment. Both narrators feel authentic, but I’d much rather spend a day with Zhanna’s quiet struggle than Anna’s shouting.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

"Times" Article -- Russian Culture as Putin's Final Frontier

Russian culture made the front page of today’s New York Times with Michael Kimmelman’s detailed and thoughtful analysis of the precarious position of freedom of expression.

Kimmelman includes quotes from two Russian writers, Viktor Erofeev and Vladimir Sorokin. Both writers have been accused of writing “pornography” in works that included content – sex, swearing, and the like – that would have been censored under the Soviet regime. Shrill labels, of course, politicize and polarize literary criticism and draw debate away from literary merit. Both writers speak out regularly against the constraints of the Putin era.

It appears that Russian writers may still write and publish what they want. As literary critic Andrei Nemzer commented in a roundtable discussion published in Искусство кино (The Art of Cinema), “собака лает, ветер уносит” – basically, “the dog barks, the wind carries,” a line from Denis Fonvizin’s play Недоросль (The Minor). Most literary barking dissipates quickly because of small print runs for books read only by the intelligentsia.

One can only hope that book publishers will not be pressured to stop supporting controversial authors who, like Sorokin, dare to write what they wish and speak out against Putin. I’m not sure that would be politically expedient for Putin, anyway, because the Sorokins and Erofeevs are so easy for a pseudo-moralistic regime and its apologists to demonize. This English-language piece on Sorokin's Web site mentions that and other ironies of the campaign against them.

Putin’s regime has shrewdly focused on creating new patriotic motifs for the masses through television, often using miniseries as a platform. Many series build on old pride in the military victory of World War 2.

A 2007 40-episode (!) series on Stalin, though, responds to demand from a segment of society for a portrait of Stalin as a wise, just, and moral leader, writes critic Semyon Ekshtut in The Art of Cinema. Ekshtut refuses to debate the filmmakers’ concept in the article, writing that polemics are useless. Unfortunately, I’m afraid he’s correct.

Also... Russian speakers/readers wishing to learn more about Russian debate on government control and the arts might want to listen to or read the December 1, 2007, edition of the "Культурный шок" ("Culture Shock") radio show on Эхо Москвы (Echo of Moscow). The guests are Andrei Erofeev of the Tretiakov Gallery and literary critic Andrei Nemzer.

For images and more background, watch “A Photographer’s Journal: Putin’s Russia,” a multimedia presentation in today’s Times. Photographer James Hill’s narration to this three-minute feature provides cultural and historical context for his black and white images.