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! 

Photo: lusi via stock.xchng

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!