Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year! & A Look Back at 2008’s Favorites

Happy new year! С новым годом! I left my year-end blog entry for the very last hours of 2008 so will have to be quick...

Here are some favorites from the year’s reading:

Best contemporary fiction: Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator). This book about history, religion, and kindness has really stuck with me, for both its polyphonic technique and its look at people. (Previous post) I also thought Zakhar Prilepin’s Грех (Sin) was very good. (Previous post)

Most fun novel: Aleksei Slapovskii’s Синдром феникса (The Phoenix Syndrome) is a funny, concise, and interesting take on contemporary Russia. (Previous post)

Favorite classic I read for the first time: Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate), by Vasilii Grossman, beat out Nikolai Gogol’s Ревизор (Government Inspector) and Fedor Dostoevsky’s Игрок (The Gambler) because several scenes described so vividly the Holocaust. (Previous post)

Most satisfying reread: I’ve read Nikolai Gogol’s “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”) quite a few times over the years. As soon as I finish it, I always want to read it again. (Previous post)

Best nonfiction: I read so little nonfiction that this may sound like a “damning with faint praise” category, but I thought Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers was a very good book about the Stalin-era repression. (Previous post)

Favorite little-known book: As I looked back at my posts from 2008, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw Vera Panova’s Серёжа (Seryozha). This novella about the everyday joys and troubles in a Soviet child’s life left me with tremendous respect for Panova’s abilities to observe and describe. (Previous post)

I don’t have many specific reading plans for 2009. After finishing Vladimir Makanin’s Асан (Asan), I will read Anatolii Rybakov’s Тяжёлый песок (Heavy Sand) then reread War and Peace. I will blog about War and Peace, so if you or someone you know has always wanted to read or reread it, please join me! I’d love to have company.

A big thank you to all my subscribers and other regular readers. I appreciate your comments and visits! I wish all of you a very happy, healthy 2009 with many, many good stories and books!

Art: stock.xchng

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cold & Snow in Russian Fiction

Last night at a Christmas party, a friend looked out the window and said the accumulating snow made her think of Doctor Zhivago… that, of course, got my mind churning about other Russian books and stories in which cold and snow play important roles. Here are some personal favorites. Please add yours in a comment!

-“Плотники” (“Carpenters”), one of the first stories in Varlam Shalamov’s Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales) collection about prison camp in Kolyma, mentions that the camp had no thermometer. But prisoners could discern the temperature: frosty fog, for example, equaled minus 40, and anything below minus 60 meant spit would freeze in the air. I recently took the advice of Josefina at Transparent Language’s Russian Blog and started reading one Kolyma story each evening. These are beautifully written stories about a horrifying time. I recommend them very highly.

-Akakii Akakevich, from Gogol’s “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”) has all sorts of troubles related to dressing for cold weather. Gogol’s descriptions of St. Petersburg’s cutting cold induce shivers. (Previous post)

-I also love the scenes in Война и мир (War and Peace) about святки (sviatki), the time in January between Orthodox Christmas and Epiphany that often involved costumes and fortunetelling. (A brief description.) Tolstoy’s scenes include a troika ride on a cold winter night with a bright moon. It probably helps that I have fond memories of sviatki fortunetelling with a friend in northern Russia – she even showed me traditional techniques.

-One other: Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Господа Головлёвы (The Golovyovs), in which relationships and weather are often very, very cold.

-Okay, one more: The descriptions of winter and living off the land in Petr Aleshkovskii’s (Peter Aleskhovsky) Жизнеописание хорька (Skunk: A Life) are beautiful. 

Your turn... I welcome comments from all climates! 

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Russian Reading Challenge 4: Gogol Potpourri

I began and ended the Russian Reading Challenge with Nikolai Gogol, taking the year to work my way through short stories in Beчера на хуторе близ Диканьки (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka) and Миргород (Mirgorod). I finished with the play Ревизор (The Government Inspector/The Inspector General).

The stories in Dikanka and Mirgorod, which focus on Ukrainian country life, are of very mixed quality and genre. The Dikanka stories were particularly painful reading for me, though I did finish them. My composite recollections from early 2008 include numerous bops over the head, deceptions, people hiding in hay, and, of course, devils and unclean forces.

I didn’t especially enjoy the stories, though there were some occasional nice passages. A description of the Dnepr in the gothic “Страшная месть” (“The Terrible Vengeance”) for example, is rather poetic, and bits of Майская ночь, или Утопленница (“A May Night or the Drowned Maiden”), which included witches, reminded me a bit of Master and Margarita. Many of the stories in these two collections showed двоеверие, dual belief, a combination of religious and pagan traditions. “Вий” (“The Viy”), a story in Mirgorod, is a sort of ghost story involving a seminary student and a shapeshifting, flying witch.

I wondered why I didn’t find much amusement in Dikanka, which D.S. Mirsky describes in A History of Russian Literature as simple and unadulterated fun. Feeling lost and humorless, I appealed to Vladimir Nabokov, via his book Nikolai Gogol. I was relieved to find I had company. Nabokov is scathing: 

“There is nothing more dull and sickening to my taste than romantic folklore or rollicking yarns about lumberjacks or Yorkshiremen or French villagers or Ukrainian good companions. It is for this reason that the two volumes of the Evenings as well as the two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod… which followed in 1835, leave me completely indifferent. It was however this kind of stuff, the juvenilia of the false humorist Gogol, that teachers in Russian schools crammed down a fellow’s throat.” (page 31)

I was able to find laughs in “Повесть о том, как поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем” (“How Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich Quarrelled”). I thought this story was the best of the two collections, with its humorous picture of how small-town neighbors feud for years after an argument that involves a silly insult and wishful thinking about gun ownership. You lawyers out there will be happy to know the Ivans decide to sue.

Gogol balances his humor, though, with a devastating final paragraph that includes mud, dampness, and one of the most quoted lines (in my experience, anyway) in Russian literature: “Скучно на этом свете, господа!” The line is not easy to translate because the word скучно combines boring and dreary. But here’s a go: “It’s tedious on this world, gentlemen!” And really, what could be more tedious/boring/dreary than two neighbors hating each other for years because of trivialities and name-calling?

As for the rest of Mirgorod, I admit I couldn’t make my way through “Старосветские помещики” (“Old World Landowners”) despite multiple attempts. I read the novella Тарас Бульба (Taras Bulba), about warring Cossacks, several years ago, so didn’t include it in this RRC selection.

I’m very happy I finished my Gogol reading with The Government Inspector, which includes a wonderful combination of slapstickish humor and observations about human nature and identity. The basic plot: rumor has it that a guest at the local inn is an inspector so townspeople look for ways to impress him.

Nabokov makes much of ghost-like characters in The Inspector General who create a rich social backdrop despite never appearing onstage other than as topics of conversation for the townspeople. Of course the play’s characters, many of whom have very funny names that reflect their personalities and frailties, are terribly unreliable and imaginative narrators, particularly when they talk about themselves. Khlestakov, the alleged inspector, for example, reinvents himself completely in conversation, and most of the other characters also show tremendous vanity in creating new narratives for themselves.

The play contains some strong elements of carnival, with plenty of chaos, masks, and changes in the power structure for characters of varied social strata. It seems to me that the final scene, in which the actors freeze for a minute and a half, is Gogol’s way of forcing spectators to, literally, look at his characters and recognize bits of themselves.

Even if I didn’t much enjoy the Dikanka stories, I’m glad I read them: I got a better feel for the variations in Gogol’s writing and the influence he exerts on Russian literature. I’ve been familiar with The Inspector General for years, having read pieces of it and seeing it performed, so was glad to finally fill in a big hole in my Russian reading.

Thank you, Sharon, for creating the Russian Reading Challenge

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Elizarov Wins 2008 Russian Booker

Mikhail Elizarov won the 2008 Russian Booker Prize for his novel Библиотекарь (The Librarian). Other finalists were Il'ia Boiashov, Vladimir Sharov, Galina Shchekina, German Sadulaev, and Elena Nekrasova. 

This post from October 2, 2008, lists finalists, with brief summaries of their books. 

For more information (in Russian) on this year's prize, see this article on 

P.S. Apologies to subscribers who may have received this post twice!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Two Shortish Novels, Two Shortish Comments

The great benefit of long Thanksgiving cooking times is that you can do other things – drink, entertain guests, prepare more food, or blog – while the turkey roasts and the apple pie bakes.

So, before the turkey dries out or the pie burns, here are a few observations about two books that I recently enjoyed…

Iurii Dombrovskii’s (Yury Dombrovsky) Хранитель древности (The Keeper of Antiquities) is a short novel concerning a museum worker, the title’s unnamed Keeper, Kazakh history, and, perhaps, an escaped boa constrictor who shows up at the Mountain Giant Collective Farm during the 1930s. Complete Review summed up the book beautifully here.

Keeper left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I enjoyed Dombrovskii’s friendly, casual writing style and the episodes of absurd bureaucracy he weaves into the story. I also loved the boa constrictor (called a “Bova constructor” by one character) that slithers its slimy way through the apple orchard and, metaphorically, other nature-heavy settings in Keeper... things aren’t quite Edenic, particularly with Hitler’s war and Stalin’s terror threatening. The novel’s final chapter is beautifully eerie, complete with a gruesome lullaby and multiple mentions of the devil.

But still… despite so much to love, the Keeper sometimes feels too weighted down with the history, natural and human, that he chronicles and catalogues. The book felt a little unsatisfying to me, as if its elements didn’t quite fit together. This may be because Keeper turned out to be a prelude to a larger work.

The Keeper reappears with a name in Факультет ненужных вещей, (The Faculty of Useless Knowledge), a much longer novel that I look forward to reading. Then there is the sad reality of Dombrovkskii’s writing practice, which Igor Shtokman’s introduction to my Russian edition of both novels mentions: Dombrovskii was only able to write when he wasn’t in prison or a camp. Writes Shtokman (in my translation), “he hurried, wrote in swallows, feverishly because he knew perfectly well that yet another arrest was not beyond the mountains.”

Fedor Dostoevsky’s Игрок (The Gambler) is another short, light-feeling novel that covers serious topics, like family scandals, gambling, self-loathing, and expat life in a town called Ruletenburg. So many miserable people! So many debts! So much spite! And so many zeroes!

Although it’s painful to listen to Aleksei Ivanovich, a narrator who sounds like a cousin of Dostoevsky’s underground man, tell stories of self-destruction, it’s hard to turn away from the ridiculous cruelty the characters unleash on each other and themselves as they angle for love and money.

Gambling is all about luck and fate, so, as Mikhail Bakhtin points out in Проблемы поэтики Достоевского (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics), carnival is one of The Gambler’s most important themes. Social class is another. Writes Bakhtin: “People from various (hierarchical) positions in life, once crowded around the roulette table, are made equal by the rules of the game and in the face of fortune, chance.”

That’s it for this Thanksgiving!

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The 2008 Big Book Winner...

Vladimir Makanin won the 2008 Big Book (Большая книга award today for Асан (Asan), a novel about the Chechen war. I’d been eying Asan on my favorite Russian book site so just ordered it up. I’ve enjoyed Makanin’s writing since the first sentence I read, in which a giant hand swoops down to catch, if only temporarily, a man as he walks down the street.

Second prize went to Liudmila Saraskina for her biography
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and third prize was awarded to Rustam Rakhmatullin for Две Москвы, или Метафизика столицы (Two Moscows or the Metaphysics of the Capital)

A posthumous jury prize went to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Rakhmatullin and Saraskina also won readers’ choice awards, along with Vladimir Kostin, for his collection
Годовые кольца (Growth Rings).

I included summaries of Big Book finalists in this
previous entry.

Good night!

Further information in Russian:

“Триумвират достойных” – about the winners, particularly Makanin.

“Книжное казино” – Echo of Moscow 
Russian radio show from November 23, 2008, with Big Book finalists Pavel Basinskii and Margarita Khemlin.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Post-1917 Top Fiction Hits of Russian Literature: A Very Biased Russian Lit Reading List

Choosing a list of top hits from post-1917 Russian fiction falls into the “herding cats” category. Genuine hits are elusive, thanks to official cultural ideology during the Soviet era. Then there’s the fact that the time period under consideration began less than a century ago, meaning it’s tough to know what will be considered classics in another hundred years.

So... This list includes prose popular among readers (Russian and otherwise) and books that reflect certain tendencies or trends in fiction after 1917. Like them or not, I’ve made sure to include books involving Soviet-era repression, socialist realism, satire, World War 2, and absurdity. Like the Top Ten list of pre-revolutionary books (here), these are the books I’d want to teach in a survey course.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I wrote about Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) and its popularity in this previous post. I respect One Day but have always had more affinity for two of Solzhenitsyn’s longer novels: В круге первом (The First Circle) and Раковый корпус (Cancer Ward), which Barack Obama also lists as a favorite. Another thought: Varlam Shalamov’s acclaimed short-short stories, such as Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales), are also about prison camps.

Mikhail Bulgakov. Мастер и Маргарита (Master and Margarita) is often referred to as a cult favorite, but I think its popularity is too broad to fit the term. I’ve enjoyed the novel twice, though I admit my indifference (or sleepiness?) in Sunday school means I enjoy the Soviet-era scenes much more than scenes with Pontius Pilate. Others: I am a bigger fan of Bulgakov’s novella Собачье сердце (Heart of a Dog). Bulgakov’s play Иван Васильевич (Ivan Vasilyevich) is a modern classic for its adaptation to film. (Previous post: Mikhail Bulgakov and Ivan Vasilyevich.)

Isaak Babel’. I struggled with Babel’s Конармия (Red Cavalry) when I read it in grad school because of the brutality of certain scenes, so I would probably choose some of Babel’s atmospheric stories about Odessa.

Il’f and Petrov. Двенадцать стульев (The Twelve Chairs) is a classic satirical novel of the early Soviet era that I am ashamed to have never finished, despite beginning and loving it twice… it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and I wonder if maybe I’m afraid to finish it.

Vladimir Voinovich. No list of Soviet-era fiction would be complete without Voinovich’s satirical Private Chonkin books. It seems they’re going out of fashion – they’re very popular among readers my age and older. When I lent them to several readers who are, uhm, considerably younger than I who had never heard of Chonkin, they also loved them.

Boris Pasternak. Doctor Zhivago, about a doctor in early Soviet Russia and the consequences of the revolution, is unavoidable for the list, thanks to David Lean’s movie adaptation and Pasternak’s Nobel Prize. It is, indeed, an interesting book for contemplation and analysis, though not an easy one to read. (Why? Previous post here)

Socialist Realism. Although you might not want to spend money on any of these books, I think it’s important to read a bit of socialist realism to get a feel for how propaganda was forced into a new genre of fiction during the Soviet period. Ubiquitous books included Nikolai Ostrovskii’s Как закалялась сталь (How the Steel Was Tempered) and Maksim Gorkii’s Мать (Mother), which is misfiled here because it was written before the revolution. My recommendations would be either Fedor Gladkov’s Цемент (Cement) or Valentin Kataev’s Время, вперёд! (Time, Forward!).

Daniil Kharms. Though Kharms may not have mass appeal, I can’t leave him and absurdity, a crucial part of Soviet culture, off the list. My personal favorite is “Старушка” (“The Old Lady”).

Anatolii Rybakov. I like Rybakov’s straightforward writing in Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat), which looks at how the Stalinist terror affected regular people. Friends who’ve read it in Russian seem to like it much better than friends who’ve read it in English, leading me to suspect the stylistic simplicity doesn’t translate well. The first book of the trilogy is best.

Andrei Platonov. Platonov’s Котлаван (The Foundation Pit) is a tough bit of fiction to read, thanks to a blend of neologisms and cultural references, but it’s important as a counterpoint to socialist realism (see above) and as a linguistic experiment. (Previous post here) My favorite Platonov so far: “Возвращение” (“The Return”), about a World War 2 soldier coming home.

Vasilii Grossman. I get the impression that Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) is a bigger hit in translation than in Russia. It’s a very good, sprawling novel about World War 2 in the Soviet Union. (Previous post here)

Post-Soviet. I think it’s important to include something post-Soviet on the list, too, despite a complete lack of historical perspective. I don’t especially like Vladimir Sorokin’s manipulative Лёд (Ice) or Tat’iana Tolstaia’s primer-like Кысь (The Slynx), but both are post-modern novels available in translation that have earned followings. I’m more partial to Vladimir Makanin’s quieter Лаз (Escape Hatch) (previous post here) because I admire the philosophical depth of his simple prose; his Стол, покрытый сукном и с графином в середине (Baize-Covered Table with Decanter) won the Russian Booker and is probably his best-known book in the U.S.

Finally, the biggest literary writing hit of the post-Soviet era thus far is probably Liudmila Ulitskaia, whose engrossing Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator), about religion, World War 2, and humane behavior, is one of the best books I’ve read in years (previous post here). I don’t know when (or if) it will be available in English.

The Nabokov Question.
There’s no Nabokov on this list because he is, for me, as they say in Russian, тёмный лес, a dark forest. I don’t know my way around. I’d love readers’ suggestions of favorite Nabokov books originally written in Russian... 

Edit: P.S. The more I think about it, the more I want to include Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg in one of these hit lists. It was originally published before the revolution, then revised after, so it could go on either one. I also forgot to include an old favorite, Evgenii Zamiatin’s Мы (We). These lists just keep getting bigger! 

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature: My Slightly Biased Russian Lit Reading List

Phew, now that I’ve almost recovered from the two-year election and a three-week cold/flu, I can get back to thinking and writing about Russian books.

I’m writing today to keep my promise from last month: post a list of top hits from Russian literature. Today’s entry covers prerevolutionary fiction; I’ll decide on post-revolutionary books soon. Just, please, don’t ask me about my criteria because I’m not exactly sure what they are. I’ve tried to find a balance between personal favorites and popular books I’ve never been wild about (see below: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy). Still, these are the books and stories I’d want to teach in a survey course for fast-reading students.

Nikolai Karamzin: “Бедная Лиза” (“Poor Liza”), a sentimental “teary drama” about a country girl led astray by a city boy. First universally recognized piece of Russian lit.

Aleksandr Pushkin: “Повести Белкина” (“The Belkin Tales”), a collection of short stories ostensibly written by a writer named Belkin. An early use of a rather modern authorship device, wonderful stories. Also: “Пиковая дама” (“The Queen of Spades”) is another favorite, whence the classic phrase “тройка, семёрка и туз” (“three, seven, and ace”).

Mikhail Lermontov: Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time), connected short stories about an anti-hero named Pechorin. The phrase “hero of our time” is used frequently in our 21st century.

Nikolai Gogol’: “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), a short story favorite. Another: I also love “Нос” (“The Nose”), in which a man loses his nose and later finds it, human-size and dressed up, walking about town.

Fedor Dostoevsky: Though it’s not a favorite of mine, Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment) is, I think, “the” choice of Dostoevsky’s long novels because its themes of redemption are so broadly known. My personal favorites: I have a preference for Dostoevsky’s novellas, such as Записки из подполья (Notes for Underground) and Двойник (The Double)… and both continue to resonate in Russian lit and culture.

Lev Tolstoy: Анна Каренина (Anna Karenina) is probably a bigger hit than my favorite, Война и мир (War and Peace), if only because AK is significantly shorter. I’ll admit that character development is probably more complex in AK, but I think Tolstoy leans too heavily on Levin in the book. I prefer W&P because I’m unrepentant about recommending books that combine fun reading with serious ideas; I also admire Tolstoy’s ability to echo content with form. Others: I’ve enjoyed the novellas Казаки (The Cossacks) and Смерть Ивана Ильича (The Death of Ivan Ilich).

Ivan Turgenev: Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons) is a wonderful novel that I didn’t appreciate enough when I read it in college. Other good ones: Дворянское гнездо (Nest of the Gentry) and Рудин (Rudin), both of which involve superfluous men.

Anton Chekhov: It’s been so long since I’ve read much Chekov that it’s tough for me to choose, particularly because it seems no two people recommend the same Chekhov story… but two of my favorites when I took a Chekhov course were “Дама с собачкой” (“The Lady with the Little Dog”) and Палата №. 6 (Ward No .6). And, well, I always thought “Крыжовник” (“Gooseberries”) was pretty good, too. I'll stop there, lest I keep adding! I recently bought a book with those and other stories, including Дуэль (The Duel) and Степь (The Steppe), both of which will be new for me.

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. The last pick is the always hardest… Aleksandr Kuprin’s music-related “Гранатовый браслет” (“Garnet Bracelet”), a bigger hit than my preferred Яма (The Pit)? Ivan Goncharov’s slacker Обломов (Oblomov)? Perhaps some symbolism, such Fedor Sologub’s little-known Мелкий бес (Petty Demon) or maybe Andrei Beliy’s Петербург (Petersburg), with its wonderful geometry? Thinking more, though, I’ve decided on Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Господа Головлёвы (The Golovyovs), a horribly painful book about family that I couldn’t put down.

How would you change the list?

And, just for fun, a few syllabi from Russian lit courses:




Also for fun: Here’s what you get if you search Russian classics fiction on Amazon: Russian Classics Fiction search

Photo credit: nkzs through stock.xchng

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Warning: “Notes from Underground” Dangerous to Kids

“Unsafe at Any Read,” Lee Siegel’s essay in today’s New York Times Book Review, includes an account of the dangers of reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground as a high school freshman. Indeed, hearing “2+2=5” from a “great writer” could cause trouble at a formative age.

Thank goodness I didn’t happen upon Notes until college! Rather than finding a new math paradigm or excuses for additional irrational behavior, I found a cautionary tale about spite and illogic that continues to provide a helpful framework for reading about, yes, politics. Short version: Dostoevsky has provided lots of comfort this year. And I have Myra McLarey, a writer and high school teacher, to thank for guiding my senior English class through Crime and Punishment. I have yet to read that anyone from the group has taken an axe to a elderly pawnbroker. (At least two of us, however, work as writers.)

The fun of Siegel’s piece isn’t so much in its ironies – both within the essay or surrounding it, thanks to Siegel’s public persona -- but in remembering early experiences with (Russian) literature and how books change thinking. Please feel free to add yours as comments. For my part...

My first experience with Russian reading was Baba Yaga stories in Jack and Jill, a children’s magazine I insisted on renewing only because it occasionally contained news of Baba Yaga and her spinning house on chicken legs. Several years later, in sixth grade, a kindly teacher started a short story reading group for students who’d already sped through the entire set of color-coded SRA reading materials… it was then that I first read Chekhov -- “Пари” (“The Bet”) -- and learned about various types of irony.

As for practical influences of literature, one of the reasons War and Peace is still such a personal favorite is that its messages about plans and spontaneity fit my life: living in Moscow during the ‘90s and working as a freelancer during economic freefall have meant endless evolution and adjustments to my intentions and ideas. I’m glad I got stuck on the happy chaos of War and Peace rather than, say, the sick feeling in the pit of the stomach from another unforgotten favorite I read and loved in the same era, Sartre’s Nausea.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Happy First Birthday to My Blog!

Oof, it’s hard to believe I’ve been writing Lizok’s Bookshelf for a full year! Blogging is more fun than I’d expected, thanks to readers and subscribers who’ve written comments and e-mail. A big thanks to all of you!

Beyond finding that blogging’s a great way to organize my thoughts and save links about what I’ve read, I love looking at statistics showing which pages are most popular among readers who arrive at The Shelf via search engines. Some impressions:

“The Overcoat” and Ice. I’ve read and enjoyed Gogol’s “Overcoat” many times over the years but never would have guessed it had such a big following! Another popular page is my entry called “Vladimir Sorokin’s ‘Ice Capades,’” about Sorokin’s novel Ice. Some people arrive there by mistake, searching, it seems, for the history of the Ice Capades.

The Ice page’s popularity spiked sharply on Monday thanks to this Russian-language article about the Russian publishing industry by Aleksandr Ivanov, head of Ad Marginem, which published Ice in Russian. Ivanov linked to my piece to illustrate how American critics (why, thank you!) read Ice with perplexity, seeing it as “literary ‘неликвид,’” something literarily illiquid… whether he intended “illiquid” as a bilingual pun on water and ice or a reminder of global financial problems, I was thrilled for the link. And in good company: the piece also linked to The Complete Review.

Other Big Searches. Other popular search terms include “Dina Rubina” and anything related to Liudmila Ulitskaia (Ulitskaya), reinforcing my impression of their popularity among readers of literary fiction. Kuprin’s Garnet Bracelet is unexpectedly popular among visitors, as is Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.

Big Book Shelves. Lots of people seem to think I sell furniture, including “big book shelves.” I don’t, but writing about the Big Book Awards seems to draw people in need of places to store their home libraries. For the record, at least one of Lizok’s actual bookshelves is from Mill Stores, a New England purveyor of unfinished book cases. They’re not at all fancy, but they’re affordable, functional, and finishable, perfect for my mud room-based library.

A List of Big Books. Lots of visitors come here looking for Russian literature reading lists or suggestions of big books to read. I’m going to work on a “Greatest Hits” post but here’s a rather random list of some good thick books. Please feel free to add your contribution in a comment.

Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace (my favorite, up for a rereading this winter)

Vasilii Grossman’s Life and Fate

Anatolii Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita

Favorite Big Books from Beyond Russia:

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy

Finally, a Russian Birthday Song. This episode of Чебурашка (Cheburashka) includes Crocodile Gena’s rendition of the Russian birthday song. The song gets me every time I hear it: the lyrics include “unfortunately, birthdays are only once a year,” and the music sounds decidedly minor key. (At least to my ear…) Song lyrics are available here, and there’s plenty of information about Cheburashka on Wikipedia in Russian and English.

Thank you for your visits!

Signing off to get ready for my second blogging year,


Cupcake photo: nazreth, via stock.xchng

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Back to (Modern) Classics: Solzhenitsyn's "One Day"

The Writer: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

Work and Date: Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) (1959). The book’s Russian title would be translated literally as One Day of Ivan Denisovich.

Why it’s important: The literary journal Новый мир (Novyi mir or New World) published One Day in 1962, during the Khrushchev-era thaw, providing readers with a fictionalized account of one day in the bleak life of a political prisoner in a Soviet camp.

Online criticism, analysis, and background: Harrison Salisbury’s 1963 review from The New York Times. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “Like a Thunderbolt” is a London Review of Books piece about Liudmila Saraskina’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Fitzpatrick includes background on the publishing of One Day and the nonpublishing of other works. Michael Scammell’s “Solzhenitsyn the Stylist,” from the New York Times Book Review, is a brief but helpful piece.

IMHO: I first read One Day about 20 years ago, in English translation. Rereading it this fall in Russian was a completely different experience. I’d remembered simple language, but the original is a complicated blend that incorporates dialect and accents, curses, and camp slang.

Since I was already familiar with what happened during Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s day and have read many other accounts of prison camps, what struck me most during my rereading was how Solzhenitsyn varied his language to create atmosphere. The central portion, for example, when Ivan Denisovich works as a member of a brigade, seems to contain many passages with choppy writing and lots of exclamation marks, highlighting the fast pace of lunch and work, both of which warm Ivan Denisovich.

Back in the barracks, when Shukhov returns from work, Solzhenitsyn’s language feels stylistically simpler, calmer. There is less dialect, sentences seem longer, and my impression is that exclamation marks become sparser. This was my favorite part of the book: the more relaxed style truly reflected the content, as the men waited in line for packages, went for their evening meal, submitted to two evening headcounts, and conversed.

Although I gained a new appreciation for how Solzhenitsyn wrote and structured One Day, I still can’t say it’s a personal favorite. It’s a very, very good book, and I have tremendous respect for Solzhenitsyn’s ability to describe so much, so humanly, so almost-perfectly, in so few words. I have occasionally heard Russians praise One Day but downplay its importance a bit because it shows a relatively easy day in a prison camp – solitary confinement cells, for example, are only mentioned, not observed. To my mind, Solzhenitsyn simply chose to focus on one side of camp life, writing a publishable book and showing, very successfully, how prisoners can maintain their dignity despite the system’s constant humiliations. 

I can’t honestly tell you why I’ve never felt enthusiastic about One Day. Perhaps it’s because I read and enjoyed Solzhenitsyn’s full-length novel, В круге первом (The First Circle), first. The First Circle and Раковый корпус (Cancer Ward) both have plenty of space for extended metaphors that specialized settings – a prison camp for scientists and a hospital, respectively – can spawn. Another thought: unless Dostoevsky is the author, I generally prefer long, messy novels to short, neat books or stories… though there are short stories, like Pushkin’s “Пиковая дама” (“The Queen of Spades”) or Gogol’s “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), that I love every time.

I’ll leave you with two motifs from One Day that I particularly liked. Solzhenitsyn makes nice use of two recurring symbols in One Day: the sun and the moon, representing the passage of time. They also seem to refer to universality and separation since everyone, whether inside or outside the camp, sees the same sun and moon. Still, I think the saddest line in the book is when Ivan Denisovich wonders whether or not he wants to be free again.

Summary: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich focuses on a Soviet political prisoner’s workday, incorporating bits of material that tell of his life and family. The book is neatly structured and provides glimpses into the freedoms and limitations of a prison camp and Soviet life. It is an excellent introduction to fiction about Soviet prison and political “crimes,” and I particularly recommend it to readers who either don’t like long novels or have difficulty keeping track of Russian names.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Literary Express, Pelevin, and Russian History

1. My favorite Russian news item for today is about a train, not financial markets or politics. The “Литературный экспресс” (“Literary Express”) train set off from Moscow for Vladivostok today carrying a bunch of writers. Forty writers will travel in groups of 10, covering four itineraries and holding over 200 meetings. Writers include Zakhar Prilepin, Aleksei Varlamov, Viktor Erofeev, Polina Dashkova, and Sergei Luk’ianenko of Night Watch fame.

The goal of “Literary Express” is, in my translation, “propaganda and promotion of contemporary domestic literature and popularization of reading in the Russian regions.”

2. Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review included “Demonic Muse,” Liesl Schillinger’s enthusiastic assessment The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Andrew Bromfield’s translation of Victor Pelevin's Священная книга оборотня. Pelevin isn’t a favorite of mine but, as my father might say, those who like him speak highly of him.

3. I’m a little late posting about this article from The New Republic… Leon Aron’s “The Problematic Pages” describes the context of and some of the material in a new Russian teacher’s handbook called Новейшая история России, 1945-2006 (The Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006) by A.V. Filippov. I’d already read this Russian article about the book, which quotes passages that rationalize Stalin’s great terror. The fact that the book exists is not surprising, considering Vladimir Putin’s policies and statements about history. Even knowing that, these articles make for very bleak reading.

Pelevin's The Sacred Book of the Werewolf: A Novel on Amazon

Monday, September 22, 2008

Prilepin's "Sin" Is Not Ugly

It’s hard to explain the effect of Zakhar Prilepin’s book called Грех (Sin), which won this year’s National Bestseller prize. The book describes itself as a novel in short stories – not quite accurate, since there is also a section of poetry – and each piece about a young man named Zakhar establishes its own mood. All the stories, though, combine threads of tenderness, rage, and тоска (toska), an untranslatable Russian word that represents a sort of soulful yearning and worry.

That combination results in stories that range from merely sad to heartbreaking to absolutely deflating. “Белый квадрат” (“White Square”), for example, reaches a shocking end that feels unexpected… until the reader returns to a few bits of dialogue strewn through the story. A lighter piece, “Карлсон” (“Karlsson”) is named for an Astrid Lindgren character but is, put briefly, a tale of how Zakhar and a friend drink a lot outside and sometimes visit bookstores. Still, Zakhar begins “Karlsson” by explaining that he’d felt such “нежность к миру” (“tenderness for the world”) that he’d decided to try joining the Foreign Legion at a strange age when it’s still easy to die.

There are also stories involving love and lost puppies, work as a gravedigger, serving in Chechnia, family responsibilities, a stay in the country with nubile cousins, and what sounds like an exceptionally rough night as a bouncer. Zakhar himself, usually as a first-person narrator, links the stories. They are presented out of chronological order. Prilepin’s motivations for using his own pseudonym for a character’s name interest me far less than the result: an almost ironic genericness and a sense that “Zakhar” is, somehow, an archetypical figure from contemporary Russia.

The settings and situations in Sin often add to that tone because they feel universal – many of the seven deadly sins make appearances – yet still uniquely Russian because of characters’ choices. Prilepin mentions only small details, like a signpost, references to a transitional time, and, of course, the Chechen War, to place the book in a concrete place and time.

I admire Prilepin’s simple language and story structures, which reflect the everydayness of what he writes. Though at first they seem unremarkable, these stories become a disjointed and oddly beautiful portrait of a young life. Best of all, Prilepin, unlike his soldiers in “Сержант” (“The Sergeant”), is not afraid of expressing his feelings. There is an honesty to the stories that is disarming and frightening, particularly because the balance of anger and sweetness is so precarious.

Although not everything Prilepin writes is exactly subtle, he rarely becomes precious (with puppies) or brutal (as a bouncer) for long. Even when he does, Zakhar still feels painfully real. His emotional rawness was, for me, so distinctive and overpowering in a positive way that it was easy to overlook small technical aspects – an extra plot element in one story or a bit too much action in another – that sometimes made me, a reader with a bias toward minimalism in short stories, wish he’d trimmed a bit.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is in “Ничего не будет” (“There Will Be Nothing”). Zakhar, now the father of two boys, describes family life with his beloved (любимая) but needs to travel out of town after his grandmother dies. He drives at night on desolate roads:
“Несколько раз меня обгоняли, и я поддавал газку, чтобы ехать в компании с кем-то, ненавязчиво держась метров в ста.”
“A few cars passed me, and I hit the gas in order to drive together with someone, unobtrusively hanging back about 100 metres.”
The other cars eventually turn off the road, leaving Zakhar alone again.

I wish more writers had the courage to write passages, stories, and novels that rely on such simple metaphors, basic language, and true emotions. Prilepin is quoted in this article as saying that Sin looks at “how to ‘indulge in happiness while not sacrificing one’s soul and drowning in sin.’” I find in Sin an edgy happiness and joy for life that cohabitate with a recognition of death and loneliness. It’s only fitting that Zakhar is described, in “The Sergeant,” as a man who has felt several times in life “a strange nakedness, as if he’d shed his skin.” 

There’s lots more I could write about Sin and Prilepin himself, but I’ll end by adding that I don’t believe any of Prilepin’s writing has been translated into English. For those of you who read Russian, I’ve included below a link to a Russian page that contains links to some of Prilepin’s stories. The first five items are stories from Sin; the first story in the link called “рассказы” is “Белый квадрат.” The last link leads to the title story of Prilepin’s latest book.

Prilepin Books on Amazon

Photo: Jazza, via stock.xchang

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Back to Classics: Turgenev and the Generation Gap

The Writer: Ivan Turgenev

Works and Dates: Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons) (1861)

Why it’s important: Fathers and Sons depicts, with considerable irony, differences between middle-aged romantic idealists and progressive young materialists from the generation that came of age during the 1860s in Russia.

Criticism and commentary: Criticism of the book was so strong that Turgenev considered retiring from writing. With its irony and equal treatment of all sides, the book turned into an equal-opportunity offender. One critic who praised it was Dmitrii Pisarev. A brief summary.

IMHO: Fathers and Sons feels like the quintessential Russian novel thanks to family strife, politics, long-term houseguests, love, people hiding in bushes, class differences, and, of course, a duel. It is elegantly but simply written, and, weighing in at 200 pages and roughly 10 characters, felt like a homey ensemble piece after reading Vasilii Grossman’s epic Life and Fate.

The primary character is one Evgenii Bazarov, a nihilist who enjoys dissecting frogs. His views and philosophies at the beginning of the novel come close to “down with everything!” He has a tendency toward boorishness and invents quotes from Pushkin. What is important to Bazarov? That two times two equals four. This theme echoes throughout Russian literature, most notably in Dostoevsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground.

We meet Bazarov, whose name is rooted in the Russian word for bazaar, as he arrives with his friend Arkadii Kirsanov for a visit at Arkadii’s family estate. Trouble, of course ensues, as Bazarov mixes it up verbally with Arkadii’s foppish Uncle Pavel, who enjoys sprinkling his speech with French words.

I won’t outline the book’s plot – which includes plenty of travel for Arkadii and Bazarov – because excellent summaries are available on Wikipedia (here) and in novelist Gary Shteyngart’s “You Must Read This” installment for NPR (here). Besides, the fun of the novel comes in its light humor, accompanied by, to steal a bit from Shteyngart, Turgenev’s compassion and lack of derision.

Many episodes in the book are a bit absurd, but none more than Bazarov’s duel with Arkadii’s Uncle Pavel. Pavel proposes the duel in exceedingly polite terms, and Bazarov decides to accept the challenge “in a gentlemanly way.” The two amicably decide to skip the formality of a reason. Lacking patience for each other is enough, and Pavel avoids mentioning the slightly scandalous scene he witnessed, from behind a lilac bush, that triggered the challenge. When Bazarov injures Pavel, Bazarov bandages him up, and Pavel tells his brother he challenged Bazarov because of a political conversation about Sir Robert Peel.

To me, the real irony of the duel is that Pavel looks almost like a nihilist, willing to give his life up for no formal reason other than dislike, and Bazarov looks almost like a traditionalist by agreeing to a duel to defend his honor. Bazarov has, however, already abandoned many of his principles and even fallen in love at least once, notably with a frosty woman named Odintsova, whose name begins with the Russian word один, “one.”

(Please don’t read the next one paragraph if you don’t want to know how the novel ends.)

To cap things off, when Bazarov succumbs to death -- the ultimate negation that cannot be denied – his parents have a priest perform last rites. I found the deathbed scenes very sad, probably because Bazarov came to feel so human with his contradictions and because his parents, who live far more modestly than the Kirsanovs, loved him so much and had great hopes for his medical career. The book ends at Bazarov’s grave, where his passionate, rebellious, sinful heart hides. The flowers growing on his grave speak of eternal tranquility and life. Even in death, Bazarov, his corpse helping the flowers grow, embodies a bazaar of ideas.

Fathers and Sons also includes a bazaar of relationships. There are literal fathers and sons – Bazarov and his healer father – and there are metaphorical father and sons – Bazarov and Arkadii, his follower. Odintsova watches over her younger sister, and Arkadii’s father has a complicated relationship with his servant Fenechka, who is, of course, not his social equal, but who eventually becomes his wife after bearing his son.

I enjoyed watching these connections develop because Turgenev treats his readers with compassion, too. He shows us conversations and gestures that characterize his people, and his brief descriptive passages are memorable because he fills them with distinctive objects that establish atmosphere and their owners’ personalities. Turgenev’s combination of social significance, characters who feel just usual and odd enough to be real, and spare literary techniques make Fathers and Sons an exceedingly pleasant book to read when you’d like to consider how people relate to each other and their ideas.

Summary: Fathers and Sons is a cleanly structured short novel that combines a snapshot of a historical time with gentle humor and irony. I certainly misunderstood the book in college when I called it a “period piece,” provoking my professor to, rightly, accuse me of not understanding the novel. Though duels and horse-drawn carriages seem to have gone out of fashion, the book’s larger questions about generations and mentors, philosophies and ideals, feel surprisingly fresh in the contentious election year 2008. Besides, students, nihilist or not, still dissect frogs.

Turgenev Books on Amazon

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Anna K. (Again) & Solzhenitsyn's Style

It’s a lazy, long weekend in this household, but here are quick links to a couple items in this week’s New York Times Book Review

-Irina Reyn’s What Happened to Anna K., reviewed in the “Fiction Chronicle” column by Jeff Turrentine, sounds like an interesting cross-cultural novel about a Russian émigré, Anna, who regrets her decision to marry a wealthy Russian man.

-This week’s essay, “Solzhenitsyn the Stylist,” by Michael Scammell, examines Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writing style. Scammell concludes: “In remembering Solzhenitsyn, I would hate to lose sight of the irreverent, even playful, outsider and versatile stylist who preceded the solemn historian and gloomy prophet.” Scammell includes mentions of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, “Zakhar-the-Pouch,” and The Gulag Archipelago.

Irina Reyn on Amazon
Alexander Solzhenitsyn on Amazon

Saturday, August 30, 2008

World War 2, Life, Fate, and Spiritual Entropy

I’m sure my experience reading Vasilii (Vasily) Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) differs significantly from the experiences of other readers: Life and Fate is so long and complex that I suspect most people, particularly first-time readers, come away with messages that reflect the portions of the book they relate to most.

This 900-page epic about the World War 2 era in the USSR was unpublishable when Grossman attempted to submit it in the early 1960s. It did not reach Soviet readers until perestroika. Life and Fate includes dozens of characters, military and civilian, free and imprisoned, Soviet and German, and Grossman draws dangerous parallels between two oppressive systems. Many characters fight for the city of Stalingrad. Others are physicists. Others are held in the Lubyanka prison or German concentration camps.

Sometimes Life and Fate felt so sprawling or crowded that I thought Grossman should have written several novels instead of trying to force all his people and ideas into one book. But there is a nucleus: the Jewish physicist Viktor Shtrum, who struggles with “spiritual entropy” as Soviet science and society become increasingly politicized. Viktor and his wife Liudmila connect, with various degrees of separation, to most of the novel’s other characters through family ties.

Although I wish my Russian edition of the novel had contained a list of characters and settings, as the English translation evidently provides, I found that relaxing and accepting my commitment to read – and enjoy! – Life and Fate through the Russian Reading Challenge worked at least as well. Rather than obsessing over all the character names and traits, I focused on the people and subplots that interested me most.

There is plenty to choose from. Most passages in Life and Fate describe events in the lives of characters, but Grossman also includes an essay on war. A few chapters lack characters and feel more like journalistic pieces, reflecting Grossman’s background as a war reporter. Grossman’s writing style is generally straightforward and simple, though he occasionally hits what felt to me like off notes with gratuitous references to, for example, Avogadro’s number and certain works of Russian literature.

Life and Fate is often compared with War and Peace, and these long, loose books have obvious formal similarities. But what struck me more was the authors’ common emphasis on individuals: Grossman, for example, focuses on humanity by looking at the individuals who make up the Soviet and German military... and those who become victims of the Soviet GULag and German concentration camps.

This theme leads to the book’s best scenes, some of the most moving I’ve read in years: a letter from a doomed woman to her son (Part 1, chapter 18), an account of being led to death in a gas chamber (Part 2, chapters 45-50), and a scene of encircled German troops at Christmas (Part 3, chapter 36-37). I recommend these scenes highly to all readers, whether or not they read the entire book.

Shtrum’s spiritual entropy and intense loneliness as he struggles with his own moral decisions and fate as a theoretical scientist left an overwhelming impression, too. Observing the effects of fear, acceptance, and relief on his actions was not easy – these sections centering around the egocentric Shtrum were both emotional and a little drawn-out – but I added more depth to my readings of the psychology of professional and personal survival during the Stalin era.

My overall feelings about Life and Fate are mixed: in spite of some beautifully composed scenes and interesting characters, the hundreds of chapters don’t always quite hold together, and some characters inevitably felt a little stereotypical or unnuanced.

Despite its minor imperfections – which are hardly surprising for a novel of the bulk and scope of Life and Fate – Grossman’s descriptions felt so immediate that I often had trouble putting the book down to cook dinner or go to sleep. And I enjoyed considering the many painful ideas the book presented, particularly the politicization of the Soviet military and society, and the accompanying moral dilemmas for people who wanted to be good citizens but think for themselves, even during wartime.

Life and Fate deserves respect, attention, and readers. It addresses questions of freedom, morals, and politics that – as recent news shows – still burn today. If you decide to read Life and Fate, I suggest finding an edition with a list of characters… and then choosing a few people or plot lines to specialize in if the book threatens to overwhelm you. It’s worth the time and the effort, and you may, as I do, feel that you’ll want to read it again some day so you can learn more.

Summary: I highly recommend Life and Fate to readers interested in totalitarianism, the World War 2 era in the Soviet Union, and moral decisions. Although the novel sometimes feels overloaded with places and characters, some of whom flit in and out of the narrative, I appreciate the care with which Grossman describes people and their situations.

For further reading:

Robert Chandlers’s introduction to his translation of Life and Fate

Review of Life and Fate in London Review of Books

“Under Siege,” by Keith Gessen, from The New Yorker

Life and Fate on Wikipedia (includes summaries)

Short stories translated by Andrew Glikin-Guskinsky, winner of the 2007 Pushkin Poetry Prize for Translation, are available on “The Resident” “In the Country” “A Tale About Happiness” “In the War”

“In the Main Line of Attack” is anonymously translated nonfiction, by Grossman, about Stalingrad.

Life and Fate on

(Cross-posted on
Russian Reading Challenge.)