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.


  1. So Soulless is just kind of like a Russian Generation X?

  2. I never read Coupland's book "Generation X" so can't compare it with "Soulless," but Minaev specifically refers to people born during 1970-1976. He dedicates the book to that generation, using an English heading "In memory of our sweet dreams." To paraphrase part of what follows, he writes that the generation had a promising start but its life was wasted.

    The problem is that his generation came of age during the Gorbachev-Yeltsin years, meaning the Cold War was over and "lost" (if you can say that), and kids were raised under the old system but went to college and started working under (mostly) new rules.

  3. I couldn't make it through much of Coupland's book myself, mostly because each character seemed to exist only to represent a point the author was making, and thus they were pretty flat characters. I thought you were making a similar complaint about a lack of structure and fully-formed characters in Soulless. Anyway, you predict that it won't come out in translation?

  4. Yes, your reading of my complaints about "Soulless" is correct. From what you write about "Generation X," it sounds like there are definite similarities. Including that both could or should probably have been a lot better.

    It's hard to say if "Soulless" will come out in translation or not. I'd probably guess no because it's just not very good. Then again, literary merit isn't always the most important factor for publishers. "Soulless" was a big bestseller and it does have a certain sociocultural significance... a lot like "Casual," another pretty awful book that did get translated.

    P.S. I like the mayonnaise jar.