Monday, September 28, 2009

Better than Basketball: Prokhorov’s НОС (Nose) Literary Award

Yesterday’s New York Times included “Brooklyn, Meet Your Oligarch,” an article about Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who, as I understand things, wants to become majority owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team and fund half a new arena in Brooklyn.

Well, somewhere in between noting (again) that Prokhorov is “very tall” and mentioning (again) those accusations about hi-jinks at Courchevel, the Times neglected to mention the best part of the Prokhorov story. The man also has a foundation that started a rather unusual-sounding literary award. How many American sports team owners can say that?

The award is called НОС, short for Новая словесность… NOSE, for New Literature. The Mikhail Prokhorov Fund Web site writes that it established the annual prize in 2009 to recognize the 200th anniversary of Nikolai Gogol’s birth. Hence the nose. The award is intended “для выявления и поддержки новых трендов в современной художественной словесности на русском языке” – “for exposing and supporting new trends in contemporary fiction in the Russian language.”

The words “открытость процесса принятия решений” appear in bold on the NOSE page to emphasize the intent to foster “openness in the decision-making process.” Will this be the first literary prize where the jury will discuss choices of finalists and winners in talk show format? I bet it will.

Since this is the 21st century, there is also online voting. As of this moment, two books lead long list contenders by a large margin: Vadim Demidov’s Сержант Пеппер, живы твои сыновья! (Sergeant Pepper, Your Sons Are Alive!), with 450 points, and Serafim’s Записки ангела (Notes of an Angel), with 452 points. I am not familiar with either, and my casual Googling indicates that neither book has much of an Internet trail but Demidov writes on his band’s site that Zakhar Prilepin nominated his book, and the angels seem to have an Internet voting campaign going.

Sergeant Pepper and the Angel lead a pile of other books I’ve never heard of plus big names including: Viktor Pelevin’s П5(P5), Zakhar Prilepin’s Ботинки, полные горячей водкой (Boots Filled with Hot Vodka) (title story), Aleksandr Terekhov’s Каменный мост (Stone Bridge), Vladimir Sorokin’s Сахарный Кремль (The Sugar Kremlin), and Andrei Gelasimov’s Степные боги (Steppe Gods) (previous post), among others. The 30-book long list is available here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Smart Women, Dumb Choices: Latynina’s Distressed Damsels

Genre fiction has fascinated me since I read my first socialist realism novel, Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, in college. The rules of sotsrealism were painfully clear… and harshly enforced. I also loved sentimentalism, particularly Nikolai Karamzin’s story “Бедная Лиза” (“Poor Liza”) and all the “teary” imitators that followed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

I enjoy Russian detective novels, too, and think part of the attraction is the illusion that the books mirror real life in contemporary Russia. Two short novels by Julia Latynina, who’s also a radio journalist at Эхо Москвы (Echo of Moscow), showed me, once again, how crooked, as they say in Russian, the genre-based mirror is. I chose Latynina’s Только голуби летают бесплатно (Only Pigeons [or Doves] Fly for Free) for its title. The volume includes another short novel, Ничья, which could be translated as Nobody’s Woman or The Tie, as in a tie game. Both translations fit.

Latynina’s two short novels occupy the “new Russian lifestyles” corner of the detective subgenre I think of as “damsels in distress.” Latynina’s women, whom we watch make their ways through crime-related situations, barely resemble the modest single mothers with problems in Polina Dashkova’s novels, nor are they like the rich, friendly McDonald’s customer who’s the heroine of many of Dar’ia Dontsova’s ironic detective books. But they’re still familiar.

My genre fascination is related to that familiarity: avid genre readers know the typical plot turns and character types they’re likely to encounter. I love watching for new twists that update the familiar and respond to post-Soviet social changes. Latynina’s books both focus on fundamentally honest and intelligent women – one is an architect, the other is a student at the London School of Economics – surrounded by wealth. Both books outline webs of white-collar and violent crime, showing how the women get caught up.

Latynina’s writing is concise, simple, and not especially evocative, and there is too much bare description of crooked business deals for my taste. Plus many piranhas. Latynina doesn’t spend words developing round characters, but it’s obvious her women are tragically attached to their men – they contrast sharply with the more independent, practical women I’ve met in Dashkova and Dontsova’s books. Anya of Pigeons is so jealous of the attention her Moscow-based father pays to his mistresses that she tries to resemble them. (Paging Dr. Freud…) When Daddy is killed, Anya vows to find the killer in Moscow. What happens when all is revealed at the end of the book and Anya’s about to fly back to London without getting involved with her late father’s icky business partner? They end up kissing on the tarmac in the snow!!

We’re all pop psychologists these days, so let me just say I noticed some serious self-esteem issues with Elena in Nobody’s Woman, too. Like Anya, she thinks she’s not very pretty, and after a businessman dumps her, she ends up with his more violent rival. Both men also spend time with model-like women they demean for being unintelligent but (of course!) respect and desire Elena because she’s smarter and (of course!) beautiful. Let’s just say these guys spell big trouble for Elena.

I don’t mean to imply that these characters or their problems and actions are unique to Russia – at their genre-soaked cores, they’re as universal as the Cinderella story. That’s probably why they dominated my impressions of Latynina’s novels. Interestingly, when I searched for opinions of the book, I found this Russian review that says the two novels (and a third) will live short lives. Like me, the author, who goes by the pseudonym “Your Book Pilot,” also focuses on genre, noting an Aesopian aspect to Latynina’s fiction and comparing Latynina to Julian Semenov, a Soviet-era writer best remembered for the TV adaptation of his novel Семнадцать мгновений весны (Seventeen Moments of Spring). The Pilot writes that Latynina fell into the same trap as Semenov, who wrote analytical novels exposing political crimes.

Which brings me back to where I started: genre rules and reader expectations. Latynina’s book didn’t keep me reading until midnight, and I suspect Book Pilot also had no trouble putting it down. Even so, there’s always something fun about poking around in a book’s genre norms, particularly when that involves reading a fictionalized version of contemporary Russia to look at the intersections of new mores with familiar old plots and character traits. I’m sure I’ll read more.

An excerpt of Latynina’s Ниязбек (Niyazbek) is available in Andrew Bromfield’s translation on the Glas site here.

For more on the Russian detective genre, I recommend Anthony Olcott’s Russian Pulp. I also think Vladimir Propp’s study of the limited narrative twists in fairy tales is a lot of fun. Wikipedia lists 31 “functions” here. Many of them – particularly Number 2, interdiction – certainly apply to the Latynina novels.

Photo: hbrinkman via

Latynina on Amazon

Russian Pulp on Amazon

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Red Star and Bunin Prize Finalists

Some unconnected bits of news:

1. Sunday’s New York Times Book Review ran a short piece describing David King’s 350-page Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin. (Link here) The online version of the review, which also covers other books, includes a slide show with a photo of Stalin, lying in state, amid flowers and fronds. Writes reviewer Steven Heller, “What a relief it must have been for so many to see him in such a tableau.”

2. The Bunin Prize people named a short [?] list of 15 finalists. This year the award covers books of commentary. (full list in Russian) The nominees include two writers also known for their fiction: Zakhar Prilepin and Aleksandr Prokhanov. Both have won the National Bestseller award. Prokhanov’s winning book, Господин Гексоген (Mister Hexogen) is on my to-read shelf.

The Bunin nominee that interests me most is literary critic Lev Danilkin’s Нумерация с хвоста. Путеводитель по русской литературе (Numbering from the Tail. A Guidebook to Russian Literature. The title refers to the conventions of numbering cars on passenger trains.). A brief excerpt is available on, here. I’ve enjoyed Danilkin’s writings on contemporary fiction ever since I read his analysis of Boris Akunin’s Fandorin novels, using the short novel Декоратор (The Decorator) as a defining moment. (in Russian here)

3. Also, before I forget, The Complete Review posted a very favorable review (here) of Il’f and Petrov’s Золотой телёнок (The Golden Calf), which is due out soon in a new translation. (previous post) I’m enjoying my Il’f&Petrov-fest: somewhere I noticed a reader’s comment that The Twelve Chairs acts like an anti-depressant, so it makes a sunny change of pace after Makanin’s Underground!

Photo from Jazza, via stock.xchng

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wandering Life’s Corridors in Makanin’s Underground

Vladimir Makanin’s 1999 Booker Prize finalist Андеграунд, или герой нашего времени (Underground or A Hero of Our Time) feels like a literary missing link in my reading of Makanin’s fiction. I haven’t read all Makanin’s work, but Underground sure feels like a stylistic and thematic midway point between the spare 1992 Лаз (Escape Hatch), also a Booker finalist, and the stream-of-consciousness Асан (Asan), 2008’s Big Book winner. (previous post on Asan) (previous post on Escape Hatch)

Underground chronicles, in first-person narrative, a homeless 50-something nonwriting writer’s wanderings through mental and physical corridors that he compares to life itself. Petrovich apartment-sits for residents of a dormitory-like building, drinks quite a bit, and twice commits murder. The first half of this 550-page book felt like baggy, linked, almost stream-of-consciousness stories, but the second half read like a suspenseful and emotional novel, in chapters. I got so caught up in the end that I had a strange, dazed feeling when I finished.

Makanin builds much of Underground around references to Russian literature, which Petrovich claims as a key value, though I don’t seem to recall him reading much. The title refers to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground plus Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time (previous post). Petrovich certainly is an underground, intelligentsia, superfluous poster guy for the perestroika era, someone with a lot of “I” but no set home, job, or apparent value to society. Makanin opens the book with an epigraph from Lermontov, the famous line saying that his character’s portrait is a composite.

Petrovich likens himself and an old friend – a writer-double who is successful in the West – to a fable about a wolf with its freedom and a well-fed dog wearing a collar. Petrovich, of course, is the free wolf, and a proud Undergrounder, too. According to Petrovich, “Андеграунд – подсознание общества” – “The Underground is society’s subconscious.” Petrovich traces the Underground and his own intellectual heritage to Russia’s hermit monks, émigrés, and dissidents. Makanin also used an underground theme in Escape Hatch: a man crawls through a hole between above- and below-ground worlds.

Petrovich’s preference for the Underground fits with Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in Проблемы поэтики Достоевского (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics), where he writes that the dominant aspect of the Underground Man is self-consciousness. Petrovich’s goal, even in killing, is always to preserve his “я” (“I”), which he also calls his жильё (living place).

The combination of gritty, naturalistic details and literariness makes the book feel hyperreal and symbolic or allegorical. (I would call “условная in Russian.) Petrovich’s breakdown in a homeless shelter is particularly scary in both real and symbolic ways, with its monosyllabic shrieks, Vietnamese neighbors jumping on him, and extreme existential distress.

Petrovich ends up in the same hospital as his brother Venya, another double of sorts. Venya is an artist who represents the brothers’ childhood; he has spent most of his adult life in the hospital and reverts to childhood behaviors when he has a day out. More allusions? The name Venya reminded me of Venedikt Erofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line or Moskva-Petushki), with its introspection and drinking, and it may be unintentional, but one of the hospital episodes churned up distant memories of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Another: the chapter on Venya’s day of freedom refers to the title Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).

Makanin packs so many characters, social observations, and allusions into Underground that the book is messy and crowded, difficult to read and describe. But, like Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki, form reflects content, and I don’t think Underground would work if it were smooth and easy. I admit I had so much trouble with the stylistic and plot wanderings at the beginning of Underground that I considered stopping half-way through, but then a crisis gave the book so much drive that I couldn’t put it down.

To return to the missing link: the combination of realism and literary devices that felt contrived to me in Asan felt appropriate, even masterful, in Underground… I wonder if the reason is that Makanin felt closer to Petrovich’s writerly “я” in Underground than Zhilin’s military “я” in Asan.

Underground is available online, in Russian, here.

Makanin on Amazon

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Golden Calf Galleys Online

Open Letter has placed the galleys of a new translation of Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s Золотой телёнок (The Golden Calf) online here, for a limited time.

Open Letter’s materials say that Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson translated “the uncensored original, and it restores several chapters missing from earlier versions, including a witty ‘From the Authors’ rant about humor and satire.” The book will be released December 31, 2009.

I won’t let you forget about Il'f and Petrov or the new translation: tonight, yes, tonight, commences my Fall 2009 Il’f and Petrov Reading Project. I’ll start by reading (and finishing, this time!) Двенадцать стульев (The Twelve Chairs), then move on to The Golden Calf, which is a sequel of sorts to Chairs. I’ll finish the project with some nonfiction: Одноэтажная Америка (One-Storey America, also known as Little Golden America), Il’f and Petrov’s account of their 1935-1936 road trip across the United States.

Russian friends have been recommending One-Storey America to me for years, and one was kind enough to give me a nice edition of the book, complete with Il’f’s photographs, as a gift this year. Though I don’t read many whole books of nonfiction, I’m unusually excited about this one for personal reasons: my grandfather and his cousin took a cross-country road trip in 1929.

Photo: Il’f and Petrov, 1932, taken by E. Langman. Via Wikipedia.

Il'f and Petrov on Amazon

Thursday, September 10, 2009

News Roundup: Survey Says, Awards, and Gulag

1. Survey Says: Master and Margarita! Please don’t ask me about survey methodology… but reported earlier this week that the research center of the portal polled 3,000 Russians and found that their favorite book was Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Sixteen percent voted for M&M. Respondents were allowed to name several books.

Runner up was Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace (see sidebar for previous posts on W&P) with 7 percent, followed by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, at 3 percent. Others on the list, with 1 percent: Dostoevsky’s Idiot and Brothers Karamazov, Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs, Aleksandr Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin, Mikhail Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don, Aleksandr Griboedov’s To Woe from Wit, and Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls.

Foreign books were also eligible. The one-percenters: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and Erich Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades.

2. Yasnaya Polyana Award Finalists. The three finalists for the Yasnaya Polyana literary prize are: Vasilii Golovanov for Остров (The Island), Igor’ Malyshev for Dom (The House), and Roman Senchin for Елтышевы (The Yeltyshevs) (book in Russian: beginning end). writes that one of the prize’s jury members, Lev Anninskii, says the finalists were chosen because their books give Russian readers hope that the country will come out of its moral crisis.

The only writer of the three that I’ve read is Senchin: His Нубук (Nubuck) is about, yes, selling shoes in the 1990s. His Минус (Minus) has been translated into English, by Arch Tait. The publisher, Glas, has information and a link to an excerpt here.

The Rasskazy anthology I keep writing about contains a Senchin story, too, “Тоже история” (“History”), translated by Victoria Mesopir. The story has a documentary feel, first introducing a 62-year-old historian studying 1930s Germany, then placing him in the middle of contemporary Russian history, when he happens upon an opposition demonstration. Though the historical parallels felt a little too obvious for me and I’m not a big fan of meeting contemporary public figures in fiction, something about Senchin’s portrayal of the historian, a well-read man who is ignorant of his own country’s present, felt familiar and true.

3. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag in Schools. The New York Times, among others, reported that excerpts of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Архипелаг ГУЛАГ (The Gulag Archipelago) have become part of the Russian school program. (Times story, from the Associated Press, here.) OpenSpace notes (here) that the program for schoolchildren already included Solzhenitsyn’s “Матренин двор” (“Matryona’s Home”) and Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) (previous post on Ivan Denisovich).

Photo: “A sculpture of the cat Behemoth from the novel The Master and Margarita, on a wall in Andriyivskyy Descent, Kyiv,” 2005, from Wikipedia Commons, user Boulgakov.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Turgenev’s Rudin

Returning to Russian novels I first read over 20 years ago in college is a strange sensation: despite lots of déjà vu, sometimes I remember so little of the plots and characters that I might as well be reading the books for the first time.

Case in point: Ivan Turgenev’s “Рудин (Rudin, 1855), a portrait-novel of a superfluous man of the 1840s. I read Rudin on my own and suspect I favored it over “Отцы и дети”(Fathers and Sons) because I heard no lectures or canonization, and could enjoy the book on my own terms. Looking back, I admit I was probably Bazarov-ish in my relative dislike of Fathers and Sons. (Previous post on Fathers and Sons, which I read again last summer.) (Note: Blogger is always quirky, and today it will not allow Cyrillic and italics together.)

If I had to choose between the two books now, I’d probably take Fathers and Sons over Rudin, though I think I like “Дворянское гнездо” (Nest of the Gentry) more still. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy Rudin, Turgenev’s first novel, on my second reading. I did. And I’m a little surprised that what I liked “back then” is still what I like best: I’ve always found (anti?)inspiration in portraits of superfluous men who talk nicely about ideas and ideals but never get around to doing much to affect change.

Rudin is a literary kick in the pants, and Dmitrii Rudin is a literary descendant of Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin. (Previous post on Hero of Our Time) Rudin is more inert and benign than Pechorin, though: a duel situation is defused, a much-younger woman ends up telling him off, and he slinks out of town. He even knows he’ll never amount to much, which makes him all the more tragic. The slight technical similarities between the two books are also interesting: both writers use other characters to describe their title figures in detail. Rudin doesn’t narrate any portion of the novel like Pechorin does, but other figures tell stories about him that piece together a picture of his life.

Turgenev also uses one of my favorite simple plot structures. Rudin enters a fairly closed social situation where he affects others’ lives, acting as a catalyst on romantic and intellectual relationships. My favorite scene takes place on the ruins of an estate, when Natal’ia, a girl Rudin claims to love, shows admirable spine by, among other things, calling him малодушный (faint-hearted, literally small + soul) after he accepts her mother’s refusal to let them marry and cries, dramatically, “Боже мой!” (“My God!”).

Now that I think about it, maybe it was Natal’ia that I appreciated so much when I first read the book… To quote from D.S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature:

The men, again, are very different from the women. The fair sex comes out distinctly more advantageously from the hands of Turgenev. The strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced into literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the works of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev’s.

Turgenev on Amazon