Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Big Book 2009: A Lengthy Short List

Only a literary award program called “Большая книга” (“Big Book”) would name a short list of 13 books and writers. Here are the Big Book 2009 finalists:

Andrei BaldinПротяжение точки (The Space of a Dot… this title could go in many directions…)

Andrei VolosПобедитель (The Victor)

Maria GalinaМалая Глуша (Small Glusha)

Boris EvseevЛавка нищих (A Shop for the Poor)

Leonid ZorinСкверный глобус (The Wretched Globe)

Alla MarchenkoАхматова: жизнь (Akhmatova: A Life)

Vladimir OrlovКамергерский переулок (Kamergerskii Lane)

Marian PetrosianДом, в котором… (The House in Which…)

Ol’ga SlavnikovaЛюбовь в седьмом вагоне (Love in the Seventh Carriage)

Aleksandr TerekhovКаменный мост (The Stone Bridge)

Boris KhazanovВчерашняя вечность (Yesterday’s Eternity)

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

Vadim IarmolinetsСвинцовый дирижабль “Иерихон – 86-89 (The Lead Dirigible “Jericho-86-89”) I suspect this is the only book on the short list to include Led Zeppelin lyrics.

Maria Galina is having a great week: Iramifications, Amanda Love Darragh’s translation of Galina’s Гиви и Шендерович won the Rossica Prize for translation a few days ago (today’s first post). Khazanov’s book won the Russian Award earlier this year.

Amanda Love Darragh Wins Rossica Prize

Russian news sites, including lenta.ru and openspace.ru, report that Amanda Love Darragh won the 2009 Rossica Prize for Iramifications, her translation of Maria Galina’s novel Гиви и Шендерович

I listed the six other Rossica finalists in this previous post. Information about each finalist book is available on the Academia Rossica site. The Rossica Prize carries a monetary award of £5,000, which is split between translator and publisher.

P.S. Here's an article, with slide show, from the Academia Rossica site: link

Monday, May 25, 2009

Catching Up: Two Novellas, One Novel

Leonid Leonov’s Конец мелкого человека (The End of a Petty Man) has a heck of a first line:

Поздним вечером одной зимы, когда, после долгих и бесплодных поисков какой-нибудь пищи, тащился он домой бесцельно, встречен был им неожиданный человек с лошадиной головой под мышкой.

Late in the evening one winter, when he was dragging himself home aimlessly after long and fruitless searches for some kind of food, he ran across an unexpected person with a horse head under his arm.

Of course it’s the horse head that got me. As an optimist, I thought the unexpected person was leading a horse in a strange way, but The End is a novella about the early 1920s in the USSR, when food and firewood were scarce. Horse heads end up on the table – food for transitional epochs, one character says – and kind guests bring firewood when they visit. Fedor Andreich, the story’s main character, by the way, scares the horse head right out from under the other man’s arm then takes it.

Fedor Andreich is a professor writing about the Mesozoic Era… leading to all sorts of mentions of caves, ice, and even dinosaurs. Of course Fedor Andreich is something of a soon-to-be-extinct dinosaur himself, a superfluous man for his time who’s so unpleasant he even forgets his dying sister.

The End of a Petty Man is a strange, almost hallucinatory story that also includes an alter ego of sorts, a “ферт (fert) that visits Fedor Andreich. “Fert” can mean either the name of the Russian letter Ф (f) or a fop. Or both, I think: Fedor begins with F, after all, and he is rather vain. The story conjures up images and themes from an almost endless stream of predecessors, including 19th-century fiction with doubles, devils, and mental health, as well as more contemporaneous stories, notably Evgenii Zamiatin’s “Пещера” (“The Cave”). There are also Biblical references, including that apocalyptic horse’s head, the Ten Commandments, and a doctor’s office referred to as something of a “sodom,” a chaotic place.

I don’t know if The End of a Petty Man has been translated but I do know it is easier to find Leonov’s work in English translation than in Russian originals. Leonov’s short story “Бродяга” (“The Tramp”) is available online, in English translation, on Sovlit, and there are translated novels for sale on Amazon. If I had to describe in one word what little I’ve read of Leonov’s early work, I’d probably chose “intriguing” or maybe “edgy,” thanks to the feeling I was reading a strange cross between, maybe, Dostoevsky and Platonov or Pilniak. The End was alternately suspenseful and enjoyable, with occasional tedious moments.

“Tedious” describes Филиал (The Foreign Branch), Sergei Dovlatov’s novella about a radio station reporter attending a conference in Los Angeles about the future of Russia. Though some of the flashbacks to the narrator’s (“Dalmatov’s”) early and obsessive love for the treacherous Taisiia feel fairly true, there are too many of them to achieve a good balance with the present-day observations, which lack the acidity of, say, The Compromise. (Previous post: The Compromise) The title’s foreign branch, by the way, refers to the United States, which is seen as a foreign branch for the future Russia. I think Dovlatov writes best – meaning with the sharpest absurdity and humor – about the USSR, not the USA, but that’s a personal preference.

It took months of on-and-off reading to get through Источник счастья (The Source of Happiness), Polina Dashkova’s attempt to cram the Russian revolution, a parasite that gives eternal life (!), a superwealthy Russian businessman, and a pile of family history into one book. I’ve read and enjoyed several Dashkova detective novels but Happiness tries too hard to address too many Big Questions. The attempt to address history and eternity lured Dashkova away from what she writes best: crime novels about the post-Soviet period that describe frayed social fabric and the heroism of ordinary women. These are the books that keep me up at night.

In Russian Pulp, a detailed study of Russian detective novels, Anthony Olcott compares Dashkova with her peers and concludes, “Perhaps the most eloquent explorations of the collapse of the Russian state, however, come in the novels of Polina Dashkova.” Some of Dashkova’s books have been translated into German: look for Polina Daschkowa.

Leonid Leonov on Amazon
Sergei Dovlatov on Amazon
Polina Dashkova on Amazon
Russian Pulp on Amazon

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Khemlin’s Berta, Iona, Iosif, Zhenia, and Klara

The five novellas in Margarita Khemlin’s book Живая очередь (The Living Line) are spare and rather bleak but they are also thoroughly enjoyable, thanks to Khemlin’s storytelling abilities. Though the stories’ characters aren’t connected, three things meld the scenes of these novellas into a mural that feels like a small world: Jewish heritage, settings in Ukraine, and the feel that someone is sitting with you, telling tales.

Most of the stories are told in the third-person – “Zhenia,” a first-person narrative, is the exception – and Khemlin somehow builds momentum as the stories unfold. Each long story is simply called “Про X” (“About X”), where X=a character’s name. Each piece outlines events, many mundane, in the person’s life, and the timeline runs from the Russian revolution through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It would be easy to dismiss Khemlin’s characters’ stories as depressing: Berta’s nephew and his wife, for example, push Berta out of her apartment, to live in a corridor, and Iona, a veteran tank driver, can’t seem to find a place in life for himself, either. But Khemlin’s flat, matter-of-fact tone in describing Soviet life drew me to these people so much that I didn’t find myself angry at them for inaction or poor decisions.

Khemlin’s characters do the best they can for themselves under less-than-optimal conditions, and they rarely complain. Yes, Zhenia has difficulties with her husband, who ends up meeting his fate as a liquidator in Chernobyl. And Iosif loses a collection of Jewish artifacts to a family member who’s afraid they may endanger the family. In Khemlin’s world, people don’t dwell much on their problems: they don’t have time for that because they are trying to survive, materially and emotionally, both as Jews and, often, as Soviet citizens.

The Holocaust, discrimination, and all sorts of Soviet-era problems flow through these stories but Khemlin balances the personal and the public instead of overstuffing her writing with historical or religious details. Instead, she writes about seemingly unimportant people touched by history, heritage, and politics, and she makes them feel real with skaz techniques, voices that preserve verbal tics, dialect, and slang. Though the stories, particularly Berta’s, which opens the book, initially felt unprepossessing, the conversational style makes them so vivid and easy to read that I found myself planning my time so I could get back to my reading.

I thought the stories became increasingly better, perhaps because I became increasingly drawn into Khemlin’s world. The last story, about Klara, features a funeral home worker who handles accounting and can say farewell speeches over coffins in either Russian or Ukrainian. She’s very lonely but not afraid of death because she sees it several times a day. Khemlin’s painstaking inventory of characters’ actions and reactions gave me such a feel for their emotional landscapes that they became familiar, albeit at a distance, like neighbors or co-workers who never ask for help or sympathy.

Though Khemlin’s work has not been translated into English, some of the stories from Живая очередь are available online in Russian, thanks to the literary journal Знамя and the site Журнальный зал. The Living Line was a Big Book award finalist. (previous post)

Про Берту

Про Иону

Про Иосифа

Прощание еврейки the short stories included in Живая очередь; I have not yet read them.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Gogol’ and Gippius

The Russian letter Г – G in the Roman alphabet – is a gigantic, gleaming gem for Russian writer names. (Sorry!) I have nearly a full shelf of G-authored books, so it’s not easy to choose two favorite writers:

Nikolai Gogol’ would have made it to my favorites list for just two stories: “Шинель (“The Overcoat”) (previous post) and “Дневник сумашедшего” (“Diary of a Madman”). But I also love “Нос” (“The Nose”), an absurd story about a huge nose walking the streets of Saint Petersburg. And then there is the wonderful humor of Ревизор (The Government Inspector) and the devastatingly sad last paragraph of “Повесть о том, как поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем” (“How Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich Quarrelled”), which I mentioned in my “Gogol' Potpourri” post in December.

Zinaida Gippius is a sentimental favorite: I owe my first true enjoyment of Russian poetry to Gippius, a Russian symbolist who wrote poetry and prose. (Her name is sometimes rendered “Hippius” in Roman letters.) The simplicity of Gippius’s language made it easy to grasp both the words and the meanings of what she wrote, and her combination of metaphysics, eroticism, and a Silver Age guest list fascinated me. I haven’t read her in years but have some nice collections of her poems, stories, novellas, and reminiscences of writers to work on. 

The G-List for Future Reading: I’m especially looking forward to reading Irina Grekova’s Свежо предание (roughly, The Legend Is Fresh) after a friend told me how much she enjoyed Grekova. The name of the book comes from a line Свежо предание, а верится с трудом” (“The legend/lore is fresh but difficult to believe”) – written by another G writer, Aleksandr Griboedov. The line is from his classic play Горе от ума (Woe from Wit), which I read years ago in school though, honestly, I don’t remember much other than a favorable impression. It’s short, funny, and on the reread shelf. It’s filled with classic lines like “злые языки страшнее пистолетов” (“sharp tongues are scarier than pistols”), which I heard just the other day on a Russian soap opera.

Nikolai Gumilev is a poet and playwright whom I’ve always admired but have ignored for too long, and Gogol’s Dead Souls has been up for a Russian reread for at least three or four seasons. I liked it fine when I read it (in translation) in school but I was in so much of a rush to read a huge list of books and poems that I didn’t have a chance to truly enjoy or grasp it. I’m not sure why I’m afraid to start it, particularly since it’s only about 200 pages long!

After enjoying Arkadii Gaidar’s creepy “Судьба барабанщика” (“The Fate of the Drummer”) I’d also like to read more of Gaidar, who seems to have countless Russian schools named after him (previous post mentioning “Drummer”). As for Gippius, I’m particularly interested in Чертова кукла (The Devil’s Doll), a novella that allegedly shares themes with Dostoevsky’s Бесы (The Devils or The Possessed, pick your Satanist poison).

(1914 Gippius photo by Karl Bulla)

Gogol on Amazon

Gippius on Amazon or Hippius on Amazon

Griboedov on Amazon

Grekova on Amazon

Arkady Gaidar on Amazon or Arkadii Gaidar on Amazon

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Out of Gogol's "Overcoat": Voinovich's "Fur Hat"

Okay. I admit that “Soviet-era satire” probably sounds, to many readers, like a tired, irrelevant genre these days. But Vladimir Voinovich’s Шапка (The Fur Hat) is a wonderful piece of perestroika-era work that combines light, humorous writing with absurdity and serious insights into how we determine self-worth. I say “we” because, despite the Soviet setting and numerous colorful characters, this novella is about all of us.

The Fur Hat concerns a writer, Efim Rakhlin, who avoids political trouble by focusing his novels on “хорошие люди,” good people, decent people, who wind up in ridiculously difficult adventures in remote locations and become heroes. Rakhlin’s research takes him to the exotic reaches of the Soviet Union, where oil industry workers, cave explorers, and other locals reward him with gifts that decorate his apartment. Things like a taxidermied penguin.

Unfortunately, poor Efim is probably not even quite what we think of as a midlist author so, when the Writers’ Union decides to give each member a fur hat, Efim is disappointed with what the union offers him. Writers with far less output than Efim’s 11 books receive far better fur. The low-level gift incenses Efim so much that his search for what he perceives as justice eventually leads to a man-bites-man episode and a not-so-happy ending.

Why is Efim so unhappy about the low-rent hat? I’m sure symbolism has something to do with it: a hat warms the head, the writer’s most valued asset. More concretely, here’s the second part of a sentence about Efim’s thoughts on Chekhov. It provides a sample of Efim’s opinion of himself (translation is mine):

“…но, читая Чехова, он каждый раз приходил к мысли, что ничего особенного в чеховских писаниях нет, и он, Рахлин, пишет не хуже, а, может быть, даже немного лучше.

“…but reading Chekhov, he came to the conclusion every time that there was nothing special in Chekhov’s writings and that he, Rakhlin, writes no worse, and maybe even a little better.”

Readers familiar with Nikolai Gogol’s story “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”) (previous post) probably already hear echoes of Akakii Akakeivich, the impoverished copy clerk who needs a new winter coat. Several scenes in The Fur Hat resurrected Akakii Akakeivich for me, especially one when Efim walks through light, dry snow like an old man, weighted down by his mood and a briefcase full of his own books about good people. Later, when his condition reaches its nadir, he, a writer, also begins copying, albeit in a different way: writing down, verbatim, what people say around him in a meeting.

The Fur Hat is a short, easy, and (dare I say it?) fun book to read with some very enjoyable set pieces and vivid examples of hypocrisy and human ambition. Voinovich weaves in a lot more, including anti-Semitism, funny names, and relations with the West. What I love most about Voinovich’s writing, though, is that he makes it easy for us – yes, that’s you and I – to laugh at ourselves even as we think “Ouch!” when we recognize bits of ourselves in Rakhlin and his colleagues, and begin to question our own behavior.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Gelasimov’s “Steppe Gods”

Andrei Gelasimov’s Степные боги (Steppe Gods) is a short and disappointing coming-of-age novel set in the steppe beyond Lake Baikal in 1945, shortly before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The novel gets off to a decent start. A boy named Pet’ka, who likes to play war, rescues a baby wolf that he names Испуг (Fear). He hides the cub near his grandmother’s goat herd.

Pet’ka lives near a camp housing Japanese prisoners of war captured at Khalkhin Gol. Among the prisoners is an herbalist of samurai stock who keeps a diary for his sons in Nagasaki. Pet’ka likes to visit the camp, where officers ease his loneliness with talk and his hunger with kasha and canned meat. Pet’ka is often teased because he is illegitimate, and he seems to be at war with many of the boys in his village. They even try to hang him at one point.

Gelasimov’s handling of Pet’ka’s family status was my first indication that Steppe Gods wouldn’t fulfill its potential. Did Gelasimov really need to repeat so much swearing [edit: words with vulgar roots]? The vulgar бля- (blia-) root, basically “whore,” for example, appears nearly 30 times, often in a “son of a” variant used to describe Pet’ka. I know all these words and they certainly don’t make me flinch – I used to hear the simplest of them used like punctuation all the time in Moscow – but I think they lose their effect because Gelasimov puts them in characters’ mouths far too often. I’m not sure if he wants the reader to remember Pet’ka’s origins, stress the low level of culture in the village, or both. Either way, I got the point. One of Pet’ka’s nastiest accusers is a woman who sleeps with officers while her husband is at war. Pet’ka gets revenge by spattering her with kasha.

I’m not sure why, but all these difficult conditions at the end of the war – hunger, infidelity, loneliness, physical and emotional abuse – don’t quite mesh with the parts of Gelasimov’s narrative that reflect Pet’ka’s thoughts. They sound convincing [disclosure: I lack a Y chromosome] and almost nostalgically childlike despite the suffering. I read Steppe Gods to the end because I wondered where the uneasy tension of childhood and abuse were going. Imagine my surprise when the last pages brought a Hollywoodesque, feel-good, new-agey ending that found multicultural common ground between the politically incorrect Pet’ka and the very kind Japanese prisoner!

The ending drew together larks, wolves, and rituals that conjure up the gods of the title, desperately resurrecting occasional motifs that hadn’t exactly dominated the previous 130 pages. The baby wolf, for example, had dropped out of the book for dozens of pages. A one-page epilogue described subsequent events that extended until 1963. [Note to writers of all nationalities: epilogues that tie up all loose plot ends are usually superfluous.]

I’ve enjoyed some of Gelasimov’s other fiction – “Жанна (“Joan”) and Год обмана (The Year of the Lie) are very decent contemporary literary fiction – so I was surprised to dislike Steppe Gods so much. At least I’m not alone: plenty of readers on the Runet seem to have found Steppe Gods equally unsatisfying. I can’t help but agree with critic Lev Pirogov, who writes that the book reads as if it were written for the movies. Pirogov and another reader also allude to the book’s violence, and bad behavior, which they think meet the demands of readers seeking grit that feels realistic. For me, the problem with Steppe Gods isn’t the inclusion of all these unpleasant details. It’s the absence of a deeper feel for what they all mean.

P.S. Oops, I forgot to mention that Steppe Gods was shortlisted for the National Bestseller award. (previous post)