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

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