Friday, February 29, 2008

Erofeyev on Medvedev in the "Times"

Today’s New York Times includes an op-ed piece about Russian president-to-be Dmitrii Medvedev, “Russia’s Last Hope,” by novelist and essayist Victor Erofeyev.

Erofeyev may be best known to American readers of periodicals for “Dirty Words,” a New Yorker piece about Russian swearing that’s only available online in a rather piquant abstract. I last mentioned Erofeyev in this December 2007 posting about Russian politics and culture.

Today’s Times, by the way, contains another article about Russia: “Russia Is Luring Back NHL Stars.”

Monday, February 25, 2008

Russian Identity Crisis: "The Phoenix Syndrome"

I can add another novel to my growing pile of contemporary Russian fiction focusing on identity: Aleksei Slapovskii’s Синдром феникса (The Phoenix Syndrome).

The title sounds ominous – a supersecret military operation gone bad? – but the book is a fairly gentle story of a man, Gosha, who loses his memory whenever he gets too close to fire. Gosha manages to reinvent himself, like a phoenix from the ashes, into a new person several times within 350 pages.

At times Slapovskii’s Phoenix Syndrome, like his Они (They), reads as much like a screenplay as a Big Book prize finalist. The result, though, is an unusually tightly written novel with supporting characters who drift in and out, abundant one-liners, quick scene changes, and a happy ending.

There are also dark undercurrents in the book – including a criminal past – as Gosha churns through personalities with the help of Tatiana, a store clerk and single mother who takes Gosha in and begins to love him. Still, Slapovskii’s intent is to provide light, humorous reading underpinned by social commentary about post-Soviet Russian life, something as changeable as Gosha’s personality. There’s plenty of funny-but-sad material about small town politics and jealousies, Gosha’s stint as a soccer savior, and construction projects.

One Russian article about the book, in Взгляд (View), referred to The Phoenix Syndrome as “philosophical fantasy,” an apt description to which I would add “fable.” Slapovskii begins by setting the book in the small city of Chikhov, just outside Moscow. “Chikh” (чих) means sneeze, and Slapovskii admits in his second paragraph “there is no such name but the town certainly exists.”

Unfortunately, I translated that phrase myself. And the names The Phoenix Syndrome and Slapovskii (or Slapovsky) only exist in English on this blog – I am not kidding! – so you’ll just have to believe me about the book, as I believed Slapovskii about Chikhov.

In the absence of a translation, readers interested in fire and Russian birds might want to look into the folktale of the Жар-птица, the Firebird.

Summary: Slapovskii’s Phoenix Syndrome is almost as paradoxical as Gosha: it is light but satisfying, funny but sad, old-fashioned but contemporary. Though The Phoenix Syndrome may not have enough heft to be one of the most profound post-Soviet novels I’ve read, it is one of the most clear, enjoyable, and concise.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Reading List for Yahoo Russian Lit Reading Group

I’d never joined an online reading group until last week, when the Yahoo Russian Lit Reading Group sounded too good to resist. I’d been meaning to reread Doctor Zhivago and The Brothers Karamazov this year (or, well, last) anyway!

The reading list, chosen by participants, is a great survey course in Russian literature. But no grades!

Here is the schedule for discussions, which will begin on the 10th of each month:

March: Nikolai Gogol’ – “Шинель (“The Overcoat”)

April: Boris Pasternak – Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago)

May/June: Lev Tolstoy – Анна Каренини (Anna Karenina)

May/June: Anton Chekhov – “Поцелуй” (“The Kiss”)

July/August: Fedor Dostoevsky – Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov)

July/August: Leo Tolstoy – Крейцерова соната (Kreutzer Sonata)

September: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich)

October: Ivan Turgenev – Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons)

November/December: Aleksandr Pushkin – Евгений Онегин (Eugene Onegin)

November/December: Orlando Figes – Natasha’s Dance

Bonus! Here’s a slide show of Nizhniy Novgorod from The New York Times.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Translation Squared: Liudmila Ulitskaya’s “Daniel Stein, Translator”

I began reading Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) with a metaphorical deep breath that I’d been gathering for months. Knowing the book’s history of awards and sales, I was afraid of disappointment. Knowing Daniel Stein focuses on religion, I was afraid my undistinguished Sunday School education would fail me.

Fortunately, both Ulitskaya and the fictional Stein are translators who make even the densest theological ideas and passages in this utopian book accessible (or short!) enough that they don’t hinder reading comprehension or flow. That’s fitting for a book and hero stressing understanding, kindness, and love among all people, including nonbelievers.

At first glance, Daniel Stein looks like literary proof of the existence of entropy: Ulitskaya tells her title character’s story through 170 fictional documents, presenting new sources and twists until the end of the book.

Ulitskaya’s method, however, is anything but chaotic. Careful planning means her polyphonic approach reveals details of Stein’s life bit-by-bit through recollections, from Stein and people who knew him. Though the book’s mock documents aren’t always offered in chronological order, they generally follow stages in the life of the paradoxical Stein, who was born a Polish Jew but works for a Nazi officer, and dies a Carmelite monk in Israel.

Daniel Stein covers, in 500 pages, more big and serious topics than might feel realistic for several books: World War 2 and partisans, religion in the former Soviet Union, national and religious identity, doctrine and heresy, sexuality, language, misunderstanding, and masks people wear to survive. Much of the book takes place in Israel, and Ulitskaya also fits in a potential Messiah, the Jerusalem syndrome, and religious violence.

Ulitskaya succeeds in corralling highly divergent topics, views, and characters to reach an emotional overarching conclusion that might appear naïve in a more traditional novel: people of all beliefs should simply behave well and love one another.

Daniel Stein works as a novel because Ulitskaya never lets the reader forget she controls her material. Lives and narratives intertwine more successfully than in some of her previous novels (notably Медея и её дети (Medea and Her Children)), which sometimes feel more like undisciplined collections of characters than novels.

With Daniel Stein, Ulitskaya appropriates the history of a real person – Stein is based on the life of Oswald Rufeisen – to write fiction, and she decides which pieces of his history belong in her book. In case the reader forgets who’s in charge, Ulitskaya includes, within the novel, letters to her literary agent, describing progress on the book. These letters reveal Ulitskaya’s efforts: what’s real, what’s imagined, and her own feelings.

Some readers may not like these metafictional intrusions, but I think they solidify Ulitskaya’s message. Not only does she glue together shards of divergent and complex philosophical material with her own thoughts about organized religion, she reinforces the writer’s role as creator. Daniel Stein, Translator, would not have existed without Ulitskaya’s translation of Rufeisen into Stein.

I hope Daniel Stein will soon be translated into English and other languages so non-Russian readers can also learn from Ulitskaya, Stein, and Rufeisen. For now, those who read English have In the Lion’s Den, Nechama Tec’s (nonfiction) biography of Rufeisen, a book that Ulitskaya cites in her novel as an important source. My husband read it while I read Daniel Stein, and our discussions uncovered many, many commonalities.

Summary: An unusually rewarding and unified polyphonic novel that examines why and how organized religion and kindness do not always coincide. Despite its structure and heavy-sounding topics, the book generally reads very smoothly thanks to Ulitskaya’s tremendous discipline in piecing together a novel from diverse witnesses. Even if Daniel Stein is not always easy to read or describe, it can be read on many levels, and its positivity and emotion are difficult to resist.

Edit, February 21, 2008: For readers who understand Russian well, I recommend this interview with Ulitskaya on Эхо Москвы's "Книжное казино" show. Among other things, she speaks about Daniel Stein and tolerance. I agree with my friend who called the interview a treat.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Orlando Figes's "The Whisperers"

Orlando Figes’s 700-page The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia is a history book that reads as an encyclopedia of human suffering. Figes’s eloquent account of the Stalin era allows hundreds of pieces of oral history to demonstrate the effects of Joseph Stalin’s excesses. Figes connects these stories with historical background, using facts and simple language rather than hyperbolic commentary.

Figes’s low-key approach results in a well-constructed sociopolitical history of repression in the Soviet Union that exposes the long-lasting consequences of Stalinism. The Whisperers holds tremendous value for readers interested in 20thcentury Russian or Soviet history, literature, and culture.

Figes covers 1917-2006, examining the effects of arrests, trials, forced labor, and prison camps on lives and memory. He moves, chronologically, through Soviet history, looking at families of party activists, dekulakization, collectivization, World War 2, the Khrushchev-era thaw, and perestroika, often threading events from families’ lives through hundreds of pages. Some of his subjects, such as Elena Bonner and Konstantin Simonov, are public figures, but most are unknown.

The Whisperers should appeal to readers with many levels of knowledge about the Stalin era. The book examines that time methodically, making it a good introduction for people unfamiliar with the period. Figes’s depth of information makes the book equally valuable for readers like me who have gathered knowledge from diverse sources but have never made a rigorous study of the time. Most anyone should discover something new in the oral histories from families accused of being kulaks or politically disloyal.

I think readers of Soviet and post-Soviet fiction should find The Whisperers valuable as a companion volume. Beyond providing historical data useful to understanding novels like Anatolii Rybakov’s Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat) or Vasilii Aksenov’s Московская сага (Moscow Saga, known in English as Generations of Winter) that focus on the Stalin years, Figes’s psychological insights explain behavior that might seem irrational.

Readers of Russian literature may also be interested in the story of Konstantin Simonov, a Soviet writer whom Figes features prominently in The Whisperers. Many aspects of Simonov’s story are quite common:

Simonov was an altogether more complex, perhaps even tragic character [compared with Boris Gorbatov]. He clearly had a conscience: he was troubled and even repulsed by some aspects of the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. But he lost himself in the Stalinist system. (pg. 503)

Figes’s Website includes PDFs of interviews and archival documents that he used in writing The Whisperers.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia on Amazon