Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Irina Grekova’s Widows and Orphans

Вдовий пароход (The Ship of Widows), Irina Grekova’s short 1979 novel about widows living in a communal apartment during and after World War 2, is far more enjoyable than it probably sounds. Grekova somehow manages to balance the nastiness and small kindnesses of everyday life and avoid excessive sweetness or bitterness. For this optimist, the result is a strangely satisfying book that emphasizes what I think I’ll call equivocal redemption and the ups and downs of interdependence. (I won’t include too much detail, in case you want to read the book.)

Grekova begins the novel with first-person narration from Olga, whose husband was killed at the front. Olga’s mother and daughter die during World War 2 bombing in Moscow. Olga is severely injured but recovers enough to walk with a cane and use her musical education working at an orphanage. She receives new housing in the communal apartment, nicknamed the ship for widows, and develops her closest relationship with Anfisa. Anfisa gives birth to a son, Vadim, whom she conceives outside her marriage while serving as a nurse during the war.

Grekova supplements Olga’s first-person narration with third-person accounts of happenings in the apartment, giving the book both immediacy and background details without a soap opera feel… even as Vadim grows increasingly recalcitrant. Vadim is a superfluous boy for the communal apartment era: he is likened to Byron, loves to call things lies, and lazes around and smokes when he’s unhappy. He’s a dark cloud with a superiority complex, and he gets lousy grades.

Anfisa raises Vadim mostly as a single mother: though her husband returns and treats Vadim well, the husband is not around for long. Still, Vadim’s upbringing is almost as communal as the apartment: the widows help at times, and Anfisa takes Vadim to work, switching from the orphanage to kindergarten as he grows. Grekova’s treatment of these aspects of World War 2 demography and reality – the shortage of men, the influx of orphans, the lack of childcare – feels more like statement of fact than complaining, despite the very clear and painful picture of hardships.

I’ve seen Grekova categorized as an urban writer. The Ship of Widows has a Moscow feel, but it was the psychology of the characters and communal living that drew me in. Yes, it’s absolutely obvious that conflicts arise because opposing sides all believe they are right, but somehow that idea felt fresh in Olga’s telling: she knows she’s as guilty as her apartment mates. There is also a discussion of grief, in which Anfisa describes Olga’s grief as “благородное, без стыда” (“noble, without shame”).

Though Grekova seems to have chosen her characters to represent various segments of society – one widow is religious, another is a former singer, and so on – she first creates and treats them as people rather than symbols, ensuring their dialogue and situations feel real rather than overly symbolic or relentlessly dreary.

The Ship of Widows is available in Cathy Porter’s English translation, from Northwestern University Press.

The Ship of Widows on Amazon

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Yuzefovich’s Cranes and Dwarfs: Pretenders and Historical Cycles

It’s easy to see how Leonid Yuzefovich’s novel Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Dwarfs or Cranes and Pygmies) was big enough in scope to win the 2009 Big Book award. Yuzefovich covers big themes from Russian culture and history including pretenders, spirituality, times of trouble, and a human tendency for endless conflict. All in 476 very readable pages.

The predominant story line of Cranes and Dwarfs is set in a place I knew well: 1993 Moscow. Yuzefovich chronicles the struggles of “victims of shock therapy” to find new lives in post-Soviet Russia. Shubin, a writer, connects the novel’s disparate centuries and characters: he knows Zhokhov, a scheming Russian businessman, and in 2004 meets Baatar, a scheming Mongolian businessman. Shubin also researches and writes about two historical pretenders to the Russian throne, offering articles to sketchy journals whose editors are literary pretenders. Inanimate objects – a starting pistol, cheap clothing, and plastic souvenirs – try to pass themselves off as authentic, too.

Zhokhov, whose name means “rogue,” gets more ink than his pretender counterparts in other eras and locales. We observe Zhokhov in the middle of various bungled deals, and Yuzefovich provides particularly painful details of his attempt to make a bundle of money selling europium – it’s clear Zhokhov will find a way to fail. In the midst of these business ventures, Zhokhov meets a woman, a waitress at a rest home, and passes himself off as the illegitimate son of the owner of a neighboring dacha. In the background, ‘90s Moscow is ’90s Moscow: we find Herbalife, street vendors, payphones in the pre-mobile age, suffering scientific institutes, and lines like this: “Что такое бог? Единое информационное поле планеты.” (“What is God? The planet’s unified information platform.”)

As Zhokhov attempts his deals, Russia is hurtling toward the infamous October Events, which involved political pretending and very real tanks firing at the Russian White House. Zhokhov, of course, gets mixed up in that, too, and his situation is all the worse because he is carrying a painted portrait of Bill Clinton. If this sounds too ridiculous for fiction, please trust me, it fits the era. And it feels believable because Yuzefovich incorporates pointed humor that avoids crankiness, and creates characters who feel real because they are quirky and odd without being cute and contrived.

The combination of reality and invention carries over to the book’s structure, too. Shubin writes nonfiction (mostly) about historical figures, making him a literary device who produces documentary material. I particularly enjoyed his accounts of Timoshka Ankudinov, a 17th-century would-be royal who travels Europe using the name Prince Shuisky. It is Ankudinov who first brings up the cranes and dwarfs theme, describing how both sides perpetuate violence and ill will. The crane-dwarf struggle pops up frequently in world mythologies, according to this paper (in PDF), and Yuzefovich includes five lines from Homer’s Iliad that refer to it, too.

Endless conflicts spill into the novel’s other plots and subplots, whether businessmen or governments fill in for birds and little people who struggle over turf. Yuzefovich portrays cycles of violence and opportunism, though Baatar offers Mongolians up as peaceful people, at least post-Genghis Khan.

Cranes and Dwarfs survived a less-than-ideal reading: I had to put the book down for more than a week when my head, inflamed with cold or flu, couldn’t handle books. But Yuzefovich’s situations and characters remained so vivid that I lost little momentum. My biggest complaint about the book is pretty petty: a few of the Mongolian descriptions toward the end felt a bit too anthropological (or pedagogical?) for my taste. By contrast, the landscape of 1993 Moscow felt completely organic, perhaps because the details and inhabitants are so familiar that they create instant atmosphere without glosses. There were even a couple mentions of Yegor Gaidar who, by coincidence, died as I was reading the book, resurrecting even more memories of post-Soviet Russia.

Bonus! The Life Stories collection from Russian Information Services includes Yuzefovich’s story Гроза (“The Storm”). The story combines a fifth-grade class, a kindly teacher, and a guest speaker’s lecture about traffic safety with an approaching thunderstorm. “The Storm,” like Cranes and Dwarfs, combines humor with life-and-death seriousness. I’ve read about half the stories in Life Stories, and it’s one of my favorites so far. Marian Schwartz translated “The Storm” as well as this excerpt from the first chapter Cranes and Dwarfs. Cranes and Dwarfs is online in Russian: beginning middle end

Image: (per Wikipedia) 16th century drawing by Olaus Magnus, of cranes and dwarfs fighting in Northern Sweden.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Three on a Fuzzy Head -- Gazdanov, Kabakov, Ilf & Petrov

My head’s still pretty fuzzy from a cold but that feels perfect for writing up descriptions of three works I could describe, in one word each, as dreamy, nightmarish, and feverish. A bonus: the first two are available in English translation, and there’s something similar for the third…

Dreamy. Gaito Gazdanov’s Призрак Александра Вольфа (The Specter of Alexander Wolf) begins with the first-person narrator discussing his only murder. Events of the Russian Civil War connect with his later life in Paris in strange ways, resulting in a short novel that reads like Existentialism Lite and looks at life, death, duality, and fate.

The odd thing is that, despite philosophy that felt obvious to me, I thoroughly enjoyed Gazdanov’s clear, elegant writing and the places and states of mind he describes. He also includes strange little gifts of fate: a wind that carries a life-saving sound and a boxing match where the narrator meets his enigmatic girlfriend. I suspect that my impression of dreaminess may come in part from the fact that I usually read in Russian about Russia, not Paris.

Nightmarish. It was a bit of a shock to the system to follow the velvety writing of Alexander Wolf with Aleksandr Kabakov’s Невозвращенец (No Return), a gritty, chaotic 1988 novella that uses a researcher’s time travel to look at unrest in 1993 Moscow. I’m a sucker for dystopias, so I enjoyed some of the bits Kazakov throws in: I particularly liked a scene at a speakeasy of sorts that serves home brew made from Hungarian peas. (They must be Globus!) There are also repeated but failed attempts to blow up the Pushkin statue, strange goings-on in night Metro trains, and warnings about the intelligentsia being sick and in need of an operation. I thought the most telling lines of the piece, though, involved the narrator staying low to the ground in danger, sometimes crawling on all fours, like an animal. As dystopias go, I much prefer Makanin’s Лаз (Escape Hatch) (previous post) or Platonov’s Котлован (Foundation Pit), (previous post) but No Return made quite a splash when it was published, thanks to its visions of Russia’s future.

Feverish. When I finished Ilya Il’f and Evgenii Petrov’s 461-page Одноэтажная Америка (One-Storey America), my one nonfiction book for the year, I felt almost like I’d really ridden thousands miles around the U.S. in 1935-1936 with Il’f, Petrov, and their escorts, Mr. and Mrs. Adams (real name: Tron). The mysterious Becky Adams drives. So many places, people, and drugstore breakfasts! During the two-month trip, they take hitchhikers into their Ford and hear stories of hard-luck and hope. They witness incompetent bullfights in Mexico, visit American progressives, see segregation, speed down smooth roads, experience American service, and meet Henry Ford.

I loved certain passages of the book – I recognized New York, Sequoia Park, and White’s City, New Mexico, among other places – and found observations about Hollywood movies and the incuriousness of some Americans interesting. Other memorable sections describe American football, New York cafeterias, and a meeting with Russian milk drinkers in San Francisco.

The book left a strange sensation because it is, itself, like a house with multiple storeys of meaning. Though it reads like a travelogue, between the lines looms Soviet history, which had already included arrests and famine. I can’t, for example, read complaints about uninteresting but plentiful American food at face value.

Charles Malamuth’s English translation of the book, Little Golden America, is out-of-print, though partially available online here, where even the posters admit they’re infringing on the copyright. There is also Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip, translated by Anne O. Fisher, which contains English versions of I&P’s articles for Ogonek magazine; it appears to cover many of the topics in One-Storey America. The Road Trip book includes Ilf’s photos and was a 2007 Rossica Prize finalist. You can sample its words and images here.

No Return on Amazon
Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip on Amazon
Gazdanov on Amazon

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rasskazy: Five Favorites

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but here’s the best aspect of Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia: I love that I didn’t like all the stories. In fact, when I marked the table of contents, I only wrote “loved” next to 5/22 titles. Sure, many more rated “liked,” but others got “indifferent” or “shrug.” Why is this such a good thing? Because it means editors Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker compiled a risky, unpredictable anthology of stories that challenge readers’ preferences for style and topics.

It also means that the collection forms a wonderful pastiche of Russian voices, all age 40 or under, expressing worries, hopes, and concerns. A reader doesn’t need to love or feel a personal connection to each story to grasp converging and diverging views of similar subjects, like the war in Chechnya or coming of age in a reforming country. Finding common threads in these diverse stories is part of the book’s appeal.

I’m sure some stories that didn’t thrill me the first time will grab me when I pull them off the shelf later: short stories, I think, are in-the-moment reading that either hit or miss our moods, biases, and expectations. They’re also great material for discussion with friends: Tin House, Rasskazy’s publisher, mistakenly sent me a second copy of the book, which I sent to my friend M., who recently completed her MA in Russian literature.

M. and I both love Joseph Brodsky’s poems but so far the Venn diagram of our Rasskazy tastes barely overlaps. To wit: M. particularly liked Nikolai Epikhin’s “Рычева” (“Richeva”), translated by Mariya Gusev, for the characters’ discussion of “People who love money and a life of luxury and who are ready to deceive anyone for this personal happiness, to insult, to kill, and so on…” One character calls that approach to life “weightlifting.” That was fine, and I liked many other spots in the story, like a character telling a cat “I am not a maximalist.” Still, “Richeva” didn’t quite catch me. At least not this time.

Here are the five stories I enjoyed most this time around:

I began Rasskazy by reading Zakhar Prilepin’s Убийца и его маленький друг (“The Killer and His Little Friend”), translated by Svetlana Ilinskaya and Douglas Robinson. The story is about two special forces military policemen known as Primate and Gnome, and inevitable tragedy. The balance between brutality and sweetness is as delicate here as it was in Prilepin’s collection Грех (Sin), and the ending felt very, very Russian to me with its views of forgiveness and friendship.

Vladimir Kozlov’s Праздник строя и песни” (“Drill and Song Day”), translated by Andrea Gregovich and Mikhail Iossel, also features tragedy, though it focuses on schoolchildren preparing (or not!) for an annual celebration of the army. It felt particularly true-to-life to me because I spent a couple perestroika-era months in northern Russian schools. I have tremendous respect for the concision and precision Prilepin and Kozlov achieve in their stories. Also: Gregovich noted in a comment (here) that she’s translating a collection of Kozlov’s stories.

I mentioned Anna Starobinets’s “Правила (“Rules”), translated by Ellen Litman, a couple weeks ago: it’s a slightly haunting story about a child with, well, scary compulsions. Starobinets is sometimes called a Russian Stephen King. I hope she writes another novel.

Oleg Zobern’s “Шестая дорожка Бреговича” (“Bregovich’s Sixth Journey” scroll down), translated by Keith Gessen, concerns a chained-up dog nicknamed Ivan Denisovich, a pot of pel’meni, and freedom. (My friend M., by the way, didn’t like this story.) This story concerns literature, too. Here is our narrator discussing twentieth-century Russian literature: “The further back you go in the century, the simpler it is, everything’s in its place, whereas here—here you’re drinking a beer with some poet who became known at the end of the twentieth century, and it’s hard to tell: Is this a genuinely canonical writer, or is it a pathetic asshole who last week took a swing at his young wife and broke her nose? But with the dead—it’s all good.”

I read the last story in the book last: Natalya Klyuchareva’s Один год в Раю (“One Year in Paradise”), translated by Mariya Gusev, which involves Russia’s World War 2 heritage, a move to the country, interactions between generations, and a decrepit old map.

I read Rasskazy in a mix of Russian and English. I generally compare translations word-for-word only when I wonder about translators’ choices so I can’t speak about accuracy... but I will say that the Rasskazy translations seem to match the originals’ styles and feels fairly closely. I even found it easy to get lost in some translations. This is so rare and welcome that I feel a little petty mentioning that occasional words in translation – homie, wassup, “the runner only made it to second base,” &tc. – feel over-Anglicized. This is where I checked originals. To be fair, some of the Russian terms presented odd challenges, such as conversion from Olbansky, a slangy variation of Russian that uses phonetic spellings.

Even if Olbansky’s nuances (!) don’t quite translate, Rasskazy conveys so much, in English, that I recommend it highly to anyone interested in Russian contemporary culture and/or fiction. I’d love to hear other readers’ comments on specific stories.

Disclosure: Tin House, publisher of Rasskazy, provided me with not one but two copies of the book. I will continue to solicit opinions from M., recipient of the second book, to add to this post.

Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia on Amazon

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Chizhova Wins Russian Booker reports that Elena Chizhova won the 2009 Russian Booker prize for her novel Время женщин (A Time of Women). It appears that the book has only been published in journal form, in the March 2009 issue of Звезда (Star). Unfortunately, it’s not available in the online version of the journal. Chizhova was also a Booker finalist in 2003 and 2005.

Here’s a brief and simplified summary based on a review in the newspaper Kommersant: in the early 1960s, three older women in a Leningrad communal apartment raise the illegitimate and mute daughter of their neighbor, a factory worker who learns she is ill with cancer. The review, generally positive, calls it a story that’s “heartrending and tragic – with a special Soviet tragic element.”

Update, from March 6, 2010: A brief post about an article in the New York Times about Chizhova.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Schwartz’s White Guard Translation Wins AATSEEL Prize

Translator Marian Schwartz announced on her Web site that her translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Белая гвардия (White Guard) won the 2009 award for best translation into English from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL). I have never been able to get into White Guard but will keep trying – several friends have recommended it to me very highly, so I, the ever-moody reader, probably just need to find the right mood.

Schwartz’s site also lists her works in progress, which include Leonid Iusefovich’s (Yusefovich) Big Book award winner, Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Pygmies). Her translation of Olga Slavnikova’s Booker-winning 2017 (sample here) is scheduled for release by Overlook Press in March 2010. I’m set: I moved 2017 up to the top of my bookshelf for reading after Cranes and Pygmies, which I plan to start today. 2017 draws on Urals folk stories by Pavel Bazhov so that’s on the shelf, too, thanks to a friend from Ekaterinburg. Bazhov’s stories have been translated into English.

The list of nominees for AATSEEL’s book awards is fun to browse (here) for past winners and present nominees in four categories. I don’t know who won this year’s other awards but saw some familiar names in the literary/cultural criticism category, including one of my former professors, Gary Saul Morson, author of “Anna Karenina” in Our Times: Seeing More Wisely. The 30+ criticism nominees address a broad range of other topics like Russians in Hollywood, Russian symbolists and sex, sex and violence in Russian popular culture, Bakhtin, Lermontov, Pushkin, Gogol’… some excellent options for blowing a book budget!

Marian Schwartz's Translation of White Guard on Amazon
Pavel Bazhov on Amazon
Marian Schwartz's translation of 2017 on Amazon

Monday, November 30, 2009

Notable New Translations: What 2009 Brought

It’s the season for year-end lists so I thought I’d take a look at translations that brought Russian fiction into English translation for the first time in 2009. I always enjoy acknowledging translators and their publishers, and the list is so varied it should provide some fun ideas for personal reading or holiday gifts. I began by looking at the translation database from Three Percent (available here, updated here on 2 December), then added a few items that weren’t on that list…

Those of you who visit this blog regularly can probably divine that I think 2009’s most exciting releases are anthologies of contemporary Russian short stories: Rasskazy, from Tin House, and Life Stories from Russian Information Services. (All posts: Rasskazy Life Stories) Both books are treats because their varied voices, literary devices, and topics form a tremendous mosaic. I’ll be writing a full post about Rasskazy within the next week or so and hope to get to Life Stories in December.

Several more of Boris Akunin’s novels (previous post) made it into English this year, thanks to translator Andrew Bromfield: Pelagia and the Red Cockerel (Random House), plus two of Akunin’s Erast Fandorin books, Coronation and She Lover of Death (imports in the US; Weidenfeld & Nicholson). I love Akunin’s Fandorin novels, and She Lover of Death is a sentimental favorite because it was the first book I read when I got back into reading Russian fiction about five years ago. Bromfield is prolific: his translation of Andrei Rubanov’s Do Time Get Time, from Old Street Publishing, came out in May, too.

Last weekend’s post about Anna Starobinets (here) mentioned her story collection An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin and published by Hesperus Press, as well as Liudmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, and published by Penguin. (Edit: Jessa Crispin's "A World of Novels: Picks for Best Foreign Fiction," on, includes Petrushevskaya's book and links to the title story, which actually carries the modest title "Revenge.")

Northwestern University Press brought out two new Russian titles in 2009: Gaito Gazdanov’s Night Roads, translated by Justin Doherty, and Ivan Shcheglov’s novella The Dacha Husband, translated by Michael Katz. I’m familiar with Gazdanov – I just finished his atmospheric Призрак Александра Вольфа (The Ghost of Alexander Wolf) – but Shcheglov is a new name for me. Another writer I haven’t read is Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, whom Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov translated for the (partially) new collection from New York Review Books, Memories of the Future. (previous post)

Amanda Love Darragh, who won this year’s Rossica Prize for translating Maria Galina’s Iramifications, translated A Jewish God in Paris, a trio of novellas by Mikhail Levitin; Glas published both books. Polly Gannon’s translation of Max Frei’s The Stranger (Overlook) brings the first book of the popular, magical-sounding science fiction series Labyrinths of Echo into English. I’ve never read Frei but have the second book in the series – I just never seem to start with the first book.

I should add that there are several ongoing sources of translated Russian stories and excerpts, too: Rossica, from Academia Rossica, and Readings/Чтения, from Russian Information Services. Glas has also published a number of anthologies of translations, and the Glas Web site includes many samples.

A slightly off-topic note about a book that had already been translated: late fall 2009 brought two new translations of Ilf and Petrov’s Золотой телёнок: The Golden Calf from Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson (Open Letter) and The Little Golden Calf from Anne O. Fisher (Russian Information Services). Either Calf would make a fine holiday gift. I haven’t (and won’t!) compare the quality of the translations but have observed, based on my online preview of the Open Letter book and an advance copy of the book from Russian Information Services, that the books show clear differences in philosophy.

I’m not trying to be diplomatic when I say that I don’t honestly know which one I’d choose if I were buying a gift (likely to happen soon) or planning a first-time reading of the book. On the one hand, I like Open Letter’s philosophy of minimalist notes. Notes distract me because I compulsively look to see if I’m missing something. On the other hand, cultural differences mean notes will help readers understand the book, so the RIS book’s detailed historical introduction, hundreds of notes, plus two appendices are pretty useful and, yes, fun to read. Interestingly enough, Complete Review’s review calls the Open Letter book’s explanatory notes “a very limited and almost random grab-bag: more (or none) would have been preferable.” All that aside, I often like to say that the best translation is the one you’re most likely to read and love, so compare the first pages for yourself on Open Letter’s site or Look Inside from Amazon.

Disclosure: I received complementary copies of three books and one journal mentioned in this post: Rasskazy, Life Stories, The Little Golden Calf, and Чтения/Readings. I always welcome notifications about new translations.

Rasskazy on Amazon
Life Stories on Amazon
Boris Akunin on Amazon
Do Time Get Time on Amazon
An Awkward Age on Amazon
There Once Lived a Woman... on Amazon
Night Roads on Amazon
The Dacha Husband on Amazon
Memories of the Future on Amazon
A Jewish God in Paris on Amazon
The Stranger (The Labyrinths of Echo) on Amazon
The Golden Calf on Amazon
The Little Golden Calf on Amazon

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Yuzefovich Wins 2009 Big Book Award

Now that the turkey’s in the oven, here’s a quick bit of Russian literary news for American Thanksgiving: Leonid Iuzefovich (Leonid Yuzefovich) won the Big Book award for Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Dwarfs or Cranes and Pygmies). The book is online in Russian (beginning middle end), and an English-language excerpt is available on translator Marian Schwartz’s Web site (here). The Life Stories anthology contains a story by Iozefovich, “The Storm” (“Гроза”), also translated by Schwartz. Iozefovich won second place in the Big Book readers’ vote.

The Big Book jury awarded second prize to Aleksandr Terekhov for Каменный мост (The Stone Bridge). Leonid Zorin took third place for Скверный глобус (The Wretched Globe).

Andrei Baldin won first place among readers for Протяжение точки (For some reason, I like calling this one The Space of a Dot). The text of the book is available in html and iPaper formats here. Readers awarded third place to Mariam Petrosian for Дом, в котором... (The House in Which…).

Boris Vasil’ev won a special award (“за честь и достоинство” – “for honor and merit/virtue”). A list of Vasil’ev’s work on Russian Wikipedia shows a number of historical and World War 2 novels, many of which have been adapted for film. I have one of his historical novels on my shelf...

It’s time to make apple pie -- Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who celebrates the holiday!

Life Stories on Amazon

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Folk Tales and Fear: Starobinets’s 3/9

Once upon a time last weekend, I picked up Anna Starobinets’s Убежище 3/9 (Sanctuary 3/9) because I needed a long, long rest from Aleksandr Terekhov’s tedious, heavy, portentous combination of fact and fiction known as Каменный мост (The Stone Bridge)…

In Starobinets’s novel I found scary fun, a nightmarish, multigenre conglomeration of human fears. The book is packed with fairy tale themes, bits of apocalyptic thinking, and contemporary realities. I think the book’s characters, many of whom are archetypal and/or nameless, come to life thanks to two factors: Starobinets’s understanding of the psychology of fear and her matter-of-fact language.

To make a long story short: An accident in a Cave of Horrors carnival ride puts a small boy in a coma. His mother, Masha (Maria), is a photographer; his father, Joseph, is a cardshark. They split up. The boy ends up in an institution for disabled children. The parents end up in separate European countries, where hexes change them into scary forms. Like a spider. Meanwhile, doubles of some characters inhabit a parallel and rather sinister fairy tale-like world. And there’s more: A Web site recommends moving to Altai to avoid the dual disasters of a polar shift and a second sun hitting earth – these aren’t so different from the predictions of 2012 disasters that NASA tells us are a hoax. (Aside: What scares me most about these predictions is that NASA receives so many 2012 questions that it felt it had to make its “Ask an Astrobiologist” pages and video.)

3/9’s chapters contain a myriad of other themes and things related to folk stories and fears: wolves, strange dreams, forests with no escape, impossible choices, vampires, hexes and hypnotism, incest, abandonment of disabled children, edible houses, needles, scary carnival rides, someone whose name sounds like Lucifer, and dual realities. There’s even one of my worst fears: a zombified president. Starobinets draws in story book characters, too, particularly Hansel, Gretel, Ivan the Fool (this one undergoes trepanation, ouch), Sleeping Beauty, Masha who loses things, and Baba Yaga. Needless to say, Propp’s fairy tale functions are seen in full force.

I rarely have patience for such crowded, jumpy novels but Starobinets is a good enough storyteller that her frequent shifts between characters and subplots build suspense because she creates eerie ripples that move back and forth between her real and unreal worlds. My biggest problem was putting the book down at night. And slowing my reading enough to remember who’s who. 3/9 isn’t a mindless suspense novel, though: I didn’t finish and wish a time warp could return lost reading hours.

Instead I went back to the beginning and paged through the book, looking again at my margin notes and the strange borders between Starobinets’s invented worlds and her borrowings from storybooks. Rarely have I so enjoyed contemplating primal fears and the ways we convey them, over and over in books and stories, to find a strange kind of refuge.

Bonus One! The Rasskazy anthology edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker includes a short story by Starobinets, “Rules,” about a boy with some quietly creepy superstitions and compulsions. According to Rasskazy, “Rules” also appears in An Awkward Age, Hesperus Press’s book of Hugh Aplin’s translations of Starobinets’s stories. U.S. release date is December 1, 2009.

Bonus Two! Today’s New York Times Book Review included Liesl Schillinger’s very positive review of There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, Keith Gessen and Anna Summers’s translations of stories by Liudmilla Petrushevskaya. (review here) Though I respect her, Petrushevskaya has never been one of my favorite writers, so I enjoyed reading critic Lev Danilkin’s rather humorous comparison of Petrushevskaya and Starobinets in Danilkin’s review of 3/9. After writing that he sees Petrushevskaya in Starobinets’s female character with the Lucifer-like name, he adds that Starobinets is the Petrushevskaya of a new generation, a Euro-Petrushevskaya.

Danilkin concludes his comparison with this: “Петрушевскую читать жутко и муторно, Старобинец – жутко и весело.” (Roughly: “It’s terrifying and dark/heavy/unpleasant to read Petrushevskaya but terrifying and fun to read Starobinets.”) In case you’re curious, Danilkin goes on to say he thinks 3/9 isn’t an ideal debut novel because, summed up, it’s overcrowded. He’s right but I can forgive a lot in a book this interesting.

Starobinets's An Awkward Age
Rasskazy on Amazon
Petrushevskaya's Scary Fairy Tales

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Erofeev and Esenin

I’ve been struggling over the small pool of letter “E” writers for a some time, hoping more contenders for favorites would emerge from some foggy compartment of my reading memory. Увы, alas, nothing, though there are some worthy writers:

Though Venedikt Erofeev may not be as big a favorite as some of my picks for previous letters, his Москва-Петушки (Moskva-Petushki or Moscow to the End of the Line) is a Soviet-era underground classic that has cult followings in and outside Russia. I wrote a bit about this short novel in a past post. What can I say? It’s a book about life and drinking (or drinking and life?), and its motifs live on. I felt them particularly strongly when I read Vladimir Makanin’s Андеграунд, или герой нашего времени (Underground or A Hero of Our Time) (previous post), plus several theaters have adapted the novella for stage.

On the lyrical side, I’ve always had a fascination with Sergei Esenin’s poetry. I guess I probably identify with his combination of rural and urban themes. And his physical and emotional wanderings. Esenin died in 1925 but he retains a place in Russian cultural life: Russian TV ran a miniseries about him in 2005, singer Aleksandr Novikov has made several albums of songs based on his poetry, and there is a Esenin Café in Moscow. Then there is this: last month’s online auction of items related to Esenin’s last days. The lot contained the rope with which he hanged himself, a lock of hair that his mother cut off his body, and a portrait of Esenin in his coffin. The items evidently sold for a little over two million rubles, but part of me wishes this story were not true because if feels so ghoulish.

The E-List for Future Reading: I’ve long felt a little guilty for not reading Venedikt Erofeev’s play Вальпургиева ночь (Walpurgis Night). Then there is Viktor Erofeev’s Русская красавица (Russian Beauty), which has also stood unread on my shelf since the early ‘90s. I just never seem to get to it. I’m sure I’ll read more from Mikhail Elizarov after enjoying his Библиотекарь (The Librarian) (previous post) this past summer -- several story collections are available but I’m hoping for another novel.

Please let me know who I’ve have missed!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Всякая всячина -- Odds and Ends

A few links and bits of news:

1. The Новая словесность (НОС) award -- New Literature but NOSE in the short version – released its short list yesterday:

Andrei Astvatsaturov -- Люди в голом (People in the Nude). According to this review on, the book begins as traditional and entertaining autobiographical prose of a Soviet intelligentsia childhood. With age, though, the main character becomes sexist, cynical, cowardly, bilious, unsympathetic and, yes, difficult to identify with.

Tat’iana Bocharova -- Новочеркасск: кровавый полдень (Novocherkassk: Bloody Noon). Nonfiction about a riot over economic conditions that resulted in deaths in Novocherkassk in June 1962. (Wikipedia summary. Time magazine report from October 19, 1962)

Lev GurskiiРоман Арбитман (Roman Arbitman). A “parodic biography” of Roman Arbitman, allegedly Russia’s second president. Yes, there’s even a scandal: Molodaia gvardiia publishing house is asking that copies of Roman Arbitman be destroyed because the cover makes Roman look like part of MG’s famous “Life of Remarkable People” series. That’s a little silly: the book’s cover doesn’t have the famous letters (ЖЗЛ) that identify the series, though I have to admit the design had me fooled at first when I clicked on this article about the book.

Sergei Nosov Тайная жизнь петербургских памятников (The Secret Lives of Petersburg Monuments). Essays about Petersburg monuments. Winner of the National Bestseller “best book” vote from bloggers (mentioned here).

Andrei Stepanov -- Сказки не про людей (Tales Not About People). The publisher’s blurb about these stories says they are about the nature of people but most of the characters are animals. The blurb also calls the book a “редкий жанровый коктейль (rare genre cocktail) blending language play, fables, and magical stories, among others.

Elena EltangКамменые клены (The Stone Maples). So close but yet so far: I held this book in my hand at a Russian bookstore a few weeks ago when I asked the proprietor for Vladimir Terekhov’s Каменный мост (The Stone Bridge), a stone novel that didn’t make the NOSE short list. I’m reading Terekhov’s long (800+ pages) book now. But no, I didn’t buy Stone Maples.

(Previous post on НОС/NOSE)

2. The Guardian has been running top 10 lists lately. A September list inventoried “Helen Rappaport’s top 10 books on Lenin” (!), and yesterday’s covered “Howard Jacobson’s top 10 novels of sexual jealousy.” The latter list includes Lev Tolstoy’s Крейцерова соната (The Kreutzer Sonata) (previous post) and Fedor Dostoevsky’s Вечный муж (The Eternal Husband). I’ve been meaning to read The Eternal Husband for months...

The Guardian’s Books Blog recently published Hannah Davies’s “The unknown Booker prize,” a piece about Western interest (or lack thereof?) in contemporary Russian literature.

3. Finally, I was sad to see that Esther Hautzig, author of the young adult book The Endless Steppe, died recently. (NY Times obituary) The Endless Steppe was a favorite book when I was a child: it tells the story of a family’s life in Soviet labor camps during World War II. I read the book numerous times; it was one of the first I read about Russia.

4. (Next-Day Addition) This item from the Literary Saloon clued me in to the new Azeri National Book Award. Two articles (new story) (interview) offer conflicting information on whether all nominees must be written in Azeri. In any case, the interview, with the award's founder, mentions the possibility of translations into Russian and French. I visited Azerbaijan four or five times during the '90s and would love to read some Azeri fiction. Azerbaijan's most famous literary figure is probably 19th-century writer Mirza Fatali Akhundov.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Notable New Translations: Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future

By my calculation, “new” describes about 5/7 of Memories of the Future, a collection of Soviet-era stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky translated by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov. Liesl Schillinger’s review of Memories of the Future, published by New York Review Books, appeared in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review.

Why is Memories of the Future not all new? I don’t have either book, but it sounds like two of the stories in Memories of the Future already appeared in 7 Stories, translated by Turnbull, and published in 2006 by Glas. Turnbull won the 2007 Rossica Prize for translating 7 Stories. (One story, “Quadraturin,” seems to be in both Krzhizhanovsky collections plus Russian Stories from Pushkin to Buida.) The Literary Saloon noted the overlap in a post last week that also, quite rightfully, bemoaned the pathetic and chronic dearth of reviews of translations in the New York Times Book Review. The Complete Review’s favorable review of 7 Stories includes links to other reviews of that book.

I confess: I haven’t yet read Krzhizhanovsky. If you haven’t either and want to read him in English translation, you could start with Turnbull’s version of Yellow Coal, available online here. A very brief story, “Flylephant,” translated by Andrea Gregovich, is here. A number of Russian originals are online here.

A couple unrelated, moderately recent items…

Russian Book Market,” by Chad Post, from the Three Percent blog, about discussion of, yes, the Russian book market, at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The final twist in Nabokov’s untold story,” by Robert McCrum, from The Observer, about The Original of Laura.

Krzhizhanovsky on Amazon

The Original of Laura on Amazon

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ostap Bender: The (NEP-Era) Rich Cry, Too

Ilya Ilf and Evgenii Petrov’s Двенадцать стульев (The Twelve Chairs) and Золотой телёнок (The Golden Calf or The Little Golden Calf) don’t provide much practical advice on finding diamonds in antique furniture or conning a crooked Soviet millionaire. But anyone who reads them will certainly come away rich with insights into Russian humor and catchphrases.

I read the two books back-to-back – 600-plus pages of satire published in 1928 (Chairs) and 1931 (Calf) – and admit I was itching to get back to contemporary fiction when I finished. But I also confess that I miss Ostap Bender, the rather charming conman who links the two books. In The Twelve Chairs, Bender collaborates with one Ippolit Matveevich (“Kisa,” roughly “Kitty”) Vorobyaninov, to chase down a set of upholstered dining room chairs. One chair is stuffed with family jewels. In The Golden Calf, Bender and three accomplices head out to find a millionaire who hides his wealth using the combination of a suitcase, train station baggage check, and a low-paying job.

The Ilf and Petrov marathon highlighted the similarities and differences between the two books. Both are funny and both contain numerous tangents, many of which don’t relate much to the plotting but reveal aspects of culture. My favorite, in The Twelve Chairs, addresses the Russian phenomenon of not opening many doors, even at crowded places like the circus. I laughed out loud: How many times was I part of a crowd of people trying to squeeze through one open door, while several others remained locked?! The authors also list some door signs, including “Своим посещением ты мешаешь занятому человеку” – I like this one best literally: “With your visit you bother a busy person.” Words to remember.

Though the humor is similar in the two books, The Golden Calf is far more biting and politically risky. On the lighter side, there are American tourists searching for самогон (home brew) recipes during prohibition. There is also ample commentary on the Soviet regime, including one minor character who refuses to work toward socialism, preferring to hole up in a сумашедший дом (“crazy house,” psychiatric hospital) because he has personal freedom there. Ostap Bender himself yearns for Rio de Janeiro.

I’m hypersensitive to narrative devices, so the biggest difference between the books felt formal: The Twelve Chairs, with its ongoing hunt for furniture dispersed all over the landscape, strings together adventures and escapades about looking for one or two chairs at a time. Everything does fit together in Chairs but The Golden Calf’s story line feels more linear and cohesive, with Bender and his small band following one person’s trail. Plus it includes the Department of Horn and Hoof, one of my favorite fictional business ventures.

I enjoyed The Golden Calf’s other Biblical and political references, plus the portrayal of the difficulties of possessing wealth during the NEP era. The satire struck me as more historically rooted and more enduringly relevant than what I found in The Twelve Chairs. Yes, I liked both books and laughed at little things in Chairs, like the conversation with the naked engineer or the absurdity of Bender calling Vorobyaninov “Kisa.” But I laughed hardest at comments on more serious subjects. One of my favorite passages in the books is at the beginning of Chapter XVIII of Golden Calf, when Bender discusses his feelings about religion. He starts by saying “Я сам склонен к обману и шантажу…” (“I myself am inclined toward deception and blackmail…”) Like I said, I kind of miss the guy.

Translation Note: Readers looking for The Golden Calf in English translation will have two new choices later this year. I’ve already mentioned Open Letter’s upcoming release, translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson. Galleys are still available for online previews here. I learned on Saturday, at a reading of Life Stories, that Russian Life Books is preparing a translation by Anne O. Fisher, who also translated texts for Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip (samples on Google books here). Open Letter calls their translation The Golden Calf; RIS calls theirs The Little Golden Calf.

Photo: AllenHansen, via Wikipedia

Ilf and Petrov on Amazon

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Bookshelf Hits the Terrible Twos

This is it: today Lizok’s Bookshelf enters the Terrible Twos! Though my reading habits have taken on a life of their own – I never, never thought I’d crave so much contemporary Russian fiction – I don’t anticipate any blog-based temper tantrums or other forms of hysteria, mass or minor.

The best part of blog birthdays is looking back at the last year, at trends in readership and a few of the interesting search terms that brought visitors to the blog in the first place…

The vast majority of you are based in the United States, but many of you live in the U.K., Russia, and Canada. Quite a number of you have left comments, e-mailed me, or linked to my posts. I’ve even met two or three of you in person. I love to hear from readers about their interests and biases, so please write if there’s a book, writer, or trend you think I should know about.

Several of you have asked if I think American readers are interested in Russian contemporary fiction. Yes, I think they are, not just because Americans ask for reading recommendations but because the list of most requested pages on the blog show the interest. Though “The Overcoat” is still my most popular post, other top pages include posts about Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Shtain, Vladimir Makanin’s Asan, and nominations for the Russian Booker. (I discount the popularity of the 2009 National Bestseller long list post because it gets a lot of hits with search terms that include 2009 and bestseller, but not Russian.)

Popular pages on classics are Kuprin’s “Garnet Bracelet” and Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (The Devils). Dovlatov’s The Compromise, thank goodness, hasn’t lost its appeal, either, and the pre-revolutionary list of Top Ten Fiction Hits of Russian Literature is also an attraction.

As for search terms:

Can a pregnant woman eat gefilte fish?

I don’t know. But this question makes me glad the pregnant woman in Oh, Shabbat! (here) eats fried potatoes instead of gefilte fish.

Russian literature to read traveling.

I usually like either a short story anthology or a good, thick novel. I once sent an election observer off to Belarus with Master and Margarita, which he found suitably quirky for a long stay. Another thought: if you’re going to Russia, bring Pushkin. You’re guaranteed to find a statue, street, museum, or other landmark that honors him, and most Russians should be glad to know you read the writer known as “наше всё” (“our everything”).

As for anthologies, the Viking Portable Library Russian Readers (19th century and 20th century) provide good selections of poetry and prose, including novellas and a few surprises, though they also contain excerpts, which I don’t like. For something truly contemporary, try the new Rasskazy or Life Stories collections. Penguin’s Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, edited by Robert Chandler, brings classic and contemporary into one book. If bilingual is your thing, there’s the classic Russian Stories, edited by Gleb Struve. That book includes Gogol’s “The Nose,” which you have to read if you’re going to St. Petersburg.

Clockwork Orange vs. The Slynx

A Clockwork Orange. Though I admit I haven’t read it since college. (I didn’t like The Slynx very much.)

I read Russian novels.

As do I... and I can’t wait to head south tomorrow to stock up on books for the winter! And maybe eat a cupcake.

It’s been a very busy fall for both work and reading, so I’m a little behind on my blogging… But I’ll be writing soon about The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf, plus Rasskazy and Life Stories. Not to mention the slim choices for favorite writers whose names begin with the letter E.

For now, I send an огромное спасибо – huge thank you to everyone who visits and reads the Bookshelf. I appreciate all the encouragement you have provided over the last two years!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Prizes: Russian Booker Short List & Yasnaya Polyana Winners

The 2009 Russian Booker Prize short list is in! The finalists:

Elena KatishonokЖили-были старик со старухой (Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife) (excerpt)

Roman SenchinЕлтышевы (The Yeltyshevs) (beginning) (end)

Aleksandr TerekhovКаменный мост (The Stone Bridge)

Boris KhazanovВчерашняя вечность (Yesterday’s Eternity)

Elena Chizhova – Время женщин (A Time of/for Women)

Leonid IuzefovichЖуравли и карлики (beginning middle end) (Cranes and Dwarfs)

The most notable omissions from the short list are Andrei Gelasimov’s Степные боги (Steppe Gods) (previous post), which already won the 2009 National Bestseller, and Vladimir Makanin’s Асан (Asan) (previous post), the 2008 Big Book winner. has additional background here. Among the information: all the books have history themes and one judge says he had 11 names on this preliminary “short” list but the award’s rules stipulate that “short” means six. The winner of the 500,000 tax-free ruble prize will be announced on December 3, 2009.

Yasnaya Polyana award winners were announced on Monday, and they have a distinct northern feel. Vladimir Lichutin won the “Contemporary Classic” award. I wasn’t familiar with him until Monday… but quickly learned that his historical trilogy Раскол (The Schism) has received a lot of praise. One example: Vladimir Bondarenko’s list of 50 of the best twentieth-century Russian books includes The Schism. Bondarenko’s description mentions northern mysticism and calls the book a combination of fact, myth, legend, and мистерия, a Russian word that can refer to either secret rituals (usually pagan, I believe) or medieval religious drama… I think we call the latter miracle-play.

(A brief aside: Thank you to Languagehat for sending me the link to the Bondarenko list – it includes a lot of interesting picks. Some, like Master and Margarita and The Petty Demon, are old favorites, but others have stood on my shelves, unread, for too long. Those include Fadeev’s Разгром (The Rout) and Aleksei Tolstoy’s Петр Первый (Peter the Great).)

Yasnaya Polyana’s “21st century. Outstanding Work of Contemporary Prose” award went to Vasilii Golovanov for Остров, или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий (The Island or Justification of Pointless Journeys), a nonfiction book that is evidently difficult to describe… terms like essay, philosophy, and exploration all pop up. Even a quick glance at the first page seems to confirm all those, as Golovanov mentions tundra and a chilly hotel room in Naryan-Mar.

This Российская газета article has more on the Yasnaya Polyana awards.