Monday, June 23, 2008

Anya Ulinich's "Petropolis": Sasha Goldberg Hits the Road

If you’re looking for summer reading that’s fun and meaningful, and includes Russian and American settings, I nominate Anya Ulinich’s beautifully written debut novel, Petropolis.

Petropolis describes the young life of Sasha Goldberg who is, sort of, black, Jewish, and Siberian. She hails from the unprepossessing Russian town of Asbestos 2, where she enjoys art school and the company of a (slightly) older guy who lives in a giant pipe. Sasha’s mother is overbearing; Sasha’s father disappears. Ulinich’s descriptions of Asbestos 2 brought me back to the late Soviet era through details like propaganda slogans on buildings and song lyrics.

Ulinich moves Petropolis far beyond the borders of Asbestos 2, to points American, when Sasha looks for a new life that will take her away from a pile of old problems. Petropolis includes elements of road and coming-of-age novels: Ulinich’s writing is strongest in the first and last legs of the Petropolis journey, but the middle also presents memorable characters and situations.

What’s most wonderful about Petropolis is that Ulinich somehow manages to create characters that are touching and quirky but not typecast and cloying. Best of all, I’m a sucker for unpredictable and unsappy happy endings, so I loved how she wrapped things up.

The title of the book references a poem (in old Russian orthography, in English) by Osip Mandel’shtam. Many thanks to Kevin Kinsella, a translator of Mandel’shtam, whose multiple mentions of Petropolis in his blog, Languor Management, kicked me into finally taking the book off the library shelf. You may enjoy his interview of Ulinich: it includes historical and personal insights into Petropolis.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dostoevsky's "The Possessed"

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Бесы (translated either as The Possessed or The Devils) is my first completed book for the Russian Reading Challenge. The Possessed is, at various times, fast-paced, laugh-out-loud funny, suspenseful, very loud, heavily psychological, and a little slow. I tested it out as beach reading – it’s the season here in Maine – and found it’s best on a cold, windy day when you have a thick towel to wrap around yourself.

Here’s a short summary of The Possessed: a circle of would-be revolutionaries wreaks havoc in the Russian provinces. Dostoevsky being Dostoevsky, and the book being 600 pages long, things are far more complicated. There are numerous subplots concerning love, murder, atheism, and provincial society.

My feelings about the book are mixed. I loved the narrator’s slightly sardonic voice and how he filtered the distinct voices of many other characters. Both Verkhovenskiis are well-drawn, and it is interesting to watch certain characters hold power over others. The book feels very prophetic because the activists place themselves higher than laws. They also bumble in some of Dostoevsky’s more satirical passages: their disorganized meeting is hilarious, and they can be quite vain. One cell member loves to mooch food.

The Possessed, for me, had as many low points as high points. The book first appeared in serial form, which may account for certain technical inconsistencies. Introductions to characters took dozens of pages, and many of their supposed intrigues were, for me, boring, too hysterical, and lengthy. (FWIW, I was glad to learn that Nabokov didn’t like that material much, either.) By contrast, several (but not all!) deaths occur so quickly that you could almost miss – or mistake – them by blinking. I’m also not partial to religious epiphanies at novel’s end.

Despite all that, I’m glad I finally got around to reading and finishing The Possessed after having been required to read only excerpts in a college course about Russian history in literature. Although I wondered back then what I was missing – but had little time to wonder much since War and Peace and Fathers and Sons, among others, was also on the syllabus – I now understand my professors’ wisdom. The most famous Possessed passages about people, God, morals, and ideology can be read and understood apart from the hundreds of pages about society parties and love.

Still, most everything in The Possessed does link together – the revolutionaries think they can effect change by destabilizing high society – and it’s interesting to watch Dostoevsky juggle a huge cast of people, ideas, and literary techniques. Even if the result is a bit messy or murky, there should be something of interest to most readers.

Cross-posted at Russian Reading Challenge.

Monday, June 9, 2008

NatsBest to Prilepin -/- Mikhailych’s Weblog

Two very quick notes for today:

Zakhar Prilepin won the Russian “National Bestseller” book award for Грех (Sin), a collection of linked short stories. The award came as no surprise: Prilepin and Sin had the highest point total of all finalists. A list of other finalists is in my previous post and in this Russian news item.

Meanwhile Russian-English poetry translation has a new Internet home: translator Andrew Glikin-Gusinsky’s new blog, Mikhailych’s Weblog. Glikin-Gusinsky also intends to include original writing plus translations of Leningrad blockade memoirs and recollections in his blog.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Canned Peas & Nostalgia

Are canned peas the madeleines of people who lived in or visited Eastern Europe before and right after the collapse of the iron curtain?

I think of myself as not liking peas much at all unless I eat them right out of the pod, but I probably ate every canned pea garnish on my plates when I lived in Russia. Canned peas were vegetable filler, mushy and flavorless, so far removed from the essence of “pea” that they couldn’t offend me like cooked fresh or frozen peas.

And they were omnipresent, so it’s no wonder Hungarian Globus peas, a classic East bloc import, were linked with nostalgia in “Good bye Lenin!” I’m partial to Russian salad Olivier, also known as столичный салат (capital salad), a classic based on diced potatoes and meat that must include canned peas. Mayonnaise holds everything together. Sometimes the salad is mounded on a small plate and garnished with a spoonful of diluted mayonnaise that one of my students likened to snow decorating an Alp.

According to today’s New York Times, Russian émigré writer Lara Vapnyar and I have salad Olivier in common: “There are high versions and low versions,” Ms. Vapnyar said. “I like them all.”

I admire Vapnyar’s willingness to admit her affection for canned peas – the Times article even begins with the words “canned peas.” I’ve also read and enjoyed several of her stories in The New Yorker, particularly “Luda and Milena.” The story features food and appears in Vapnyar’s new collection, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love.

The Times article also mentions Darra Goldstein, whose cookbook A la Russe has, literally, served me well for two decades. The book falls open to a recipe for cabbage soup (щи) that I have made dozens of times, though always without leeks. The apple cake with chocolate glaze is perfect with tea. Unfortunately, though, the recipe for the ubiquitous Olivier salad doesn’t resemble any Olivier I’ve ever seen. I ate the stuff all over Russia but never ever came across a version that contained orange.

In case you’re curious, my favorite Russian meal is chicken cutlets (an adaptation of the Pozharskie cutlets in the Please to the Table cookbook) with fried potatoes and a cucumber-tomato salad with dill. These are foods that taste best when made fresh at home, even if I don’t have a Globus pea garnish. Or a flower carved from a carrot.

Some among you may think I torture my palate with these foods. Even if I love them, taste isn’t always the point. I rarely indulge in bare nostalgia, but Russian food brings me back to the ‘80s, when I was just beginning to learn the language, and the ‘90s, when I could hold real conversations, often over meals, speaking only Russian. Cutlets and fried potatoes conjure up the discoveries I made about Russian, myself, and the world during those years, and they remind me there is always more to learn.

P.S. On another food note: the June 9 & 16, 2008, issue of The New Yorker includes a translation of “Natasha,” a story by Vladimir Nabokov. I haven’t read it yet, but I know there’s a character named Khrenov. Хрен (khren) means horseradish in Russian, and it is also a euphemism for penis, sort of like “dick.” It can, in various forms, refer to lack of worth, and, when combined with old, it means roughly “old goat.”

Monday, June 2, 2008

Pasternak & Big Book’s Longish Short List

Last week was so oddly hectic that I never quite got to these two items:

1. May 30 marked 48 years since the death of Boris Pasternak. It may feel morbid to count the years since a famous person died, but the date is inked into my memory because I was born on May 30 not many years after Pasternak died. When I lived in Moscow, I went to memorial concerts at the Pasternak dacha in Peredelkino each May 30.

Pasternak’s grave is in the woods not far from the dacha, and I loved to hear Evgenii Pasternak recite his father’s poetry in the cemetery. I don’t know who the pianists were who played at the dacha, but I recognized two of the regular poets: Andrei Voznesenskii and Evgenii Evtushenko.

The Pasternak dacha museum was one of my favorite spots in Russia, and I always especially enjoyed looking at the bookcase in Pasternak’s office.

2. The Большая книга (Big Book) literary prize named its “short” list of nominees for 2008 on May 28. I guess 10 is a short list if it’s culled from hundreds of entries, plus it’s a reduction from last year’s 12 and the previous year’s 14.

-Pavel Basinskii Русский роман, или Жизнь и приключения Джона Половинкина (A Russian Novel or The Life and Adventures of John Half), a debut novel of many genres, written by a critic

-Il’ia Boiashov (Ilya Boyashov) Танкист, или "Белый тигр" (The Tank Driver or “White Tiger”), a historical novel about tank drivers chasing German “White Tigers” during World War 2.

-Aleksandr Ilichevskii Пение известняка (Singing of Limestone), short stories (links to some stories are here)

-Ruslan Kireev Пятьдесят лет в раю (Fifty Years in Heaven), memoir about the literary process in the USSR and Russia (links to further installments are here)

-Vladimir Kostin Годовые кольца (Growth Rings), short stories with Siberian themes

-Vladimir Makanin Асан (Asan), novel manuscript about Chechnia

-Rustam Rakhmatullin Две Москвы, или Метафизика столицы (Two Moscows or the Metaphysics of the Capital), manuscript to be published. (selected stories here)

-Liudmila Saraskina Александр Солженицын (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)

-Margarita Khemlin Живая очередь (The Live Line [lining up in order of appearance and staying in line]), stories with Jewish themes (selected work here)

-Vladimir Sharov Будьте как дети (Be Like Children), (the novel is online: начало, окончание).

I took the sketchy descriptions from this article and this article and this article. The world – or at least I, you, and a bunch of other readers interested in contemporary Russian books – will now wait until October to learn which writer wins the three million ruble first prize.

Update on July 14, 2008: The texts of most Big Book finalists have been posted on the Big Book site.