Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year! & Reading Highlights from 2010

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I hope 2011 brings you lots of fun and intriguing Russian fiction, whether you read in English or Russian. Before the year ends, I thought I’d mention some 2010 favorites and a few reading intentions – not to be mistaken for goals or resolutions – for 2011:

Most enjoyably readable long novel: Based on reviews and awards nominations, I expected to like Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel), but I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the book or the skill with which Gigolashvili brings dozens of characters to life while describing withdrawal from drugs and the Soviet way of life. (previous post) Bonus: Ad Marginem, which published The Devil’s Wheel, sent a link to a story by Gigolashvili as a holiday gift. (No, I haven’t read it yet…)

Favorite first-person narrative: With Клоцвог (Klotsvog), Margarita Khemlin does a wonderful job putting the reader inside the head of a character with all sorts of unpleasant life experiences. Khemlin has a tremendous ability to use simple language to create complex situations and characters. I’ve translated one of her short stories and hope to find it a good home in 2011. (previous post)

Favorite чернуха (dark/naturalistic realism): Roman Senchin’s Елтышевы (The Yeltyshevs), a horribly sad and realistic depiction of a failed family, is so beautifully and simply told that I asked about translating it... I’m working on it… (previous post)

Best nonfiction: I’m still recovering from Drawings from the Gulag, written and drawn by Danzig Baldaev. With its graphic visual and written descriptions of Gulag abuses, the book is very difficult to read but I think Baldaev’s perspective is important. Yes, I admit I only read one book of nonfiction this year but this one carries so much emotion and information that I know it would have been notable even if I’d read dozens. (previous post)

Favorite translated book: I did something unusual this year: I read a book, Moscow Noir, in Russian-English translation because I couldn’t wait for the collection of originals to appear in Russian. The translations read well, and the book was dark, dark, dark, as promised. Okay, I confess this is another category with no real competition since Drawings from the Gulag is bilingual. But the book was good, and the editors, Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen, did a great job compiling it. (previous post)

What might be coming in 2011: Hmm, the Sh writers seem to lead: I’ve been delaying my Shklovsky mini-marathon for far too long, and I’ve been staring at several of Mikhail Shishkin’s books for months. I also have Viacheslav Shishkov’s Угрюм-река, which I’ll call Gloom River in English, if only because it sounds like “Moon River”… Finally, I’m particularly looking forward to reading Iurii Buida after finally being able to buy one of his books, after several years of on-and-off attempts.

A big thanks to everyone for all your visits, comments, and e-mail messages in 2010! It’s been a fun year of reading, blogging, and hearing from so many of you. I look forward to more reading and book talk in 2011 -- happy new year!

Disclosures: I received Drawings from the Gulag and Moscow Noir from their publishers, Fuel and Akashic, respectively.

New year stamp image from Mariluna, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sakhnovskii on the Hazards of Knowing It All

If you’ve ever wondered about the ups and downs of knowing everything, you might enjoy Igor Sakhnovskii’s Человек, который знал всё (The Man Who Knew Everything). Sakhnovskii did a nice job convincing me that a character can take hold of an electrical wire, nearly die from electrocution, and then gain the ability to know everything. The Man Who Knew Everything was a finalist for the Booker and Big Book awards, and won the 2008 Bronze Snail award for full-length fiction.

The Man Who Knew Everything blends so many genres – fantasy, action, spy, rich-to-poor, existentialism, morality tale, and so on and so forth – that it sometimes seems as if Sakhnovskii thinks he knows everything, too. The story takes the title Man, Alexander Bezukladnikov, from poor scholar whose wife leaves him for another man, partly because he’s something of a milquetoast, to a wealthy, confident seer. He has some run-ins with criminals and spy agencies, as well as some interesting comments about visions of his own death.

Sakhnovskii tells the story through a friend of Bezukladnikov’s, who describes his meetings with Bezukladnikov – including a trip to Gaugin territory in the South Pacific – and includes documents like e-mail from Bezukladnikov and the transcript of a talk show interview with The Man. All this works, I guess, and the language is clear and direct, but it feels a touch too spare, as if the 250-page book is 25-50 pages too short.

Sakhnovskii’s dropping of certain plot lines, such as Bezukladnikov’s initial focus on trying to win back his ex-wife, who takes up with a bad guy, didn’t bother me nearly as much as coming away without a deeper feel for what it would mean to know everything. As a reader called Lartis points out on a Fantlab comment, Sakhnovskii’s use of documents means we don’t get much of a feel for Bezukladnikov’s inner workings. I think that’s why the book felt a little soulless to me.

That’s not to say Sakhnovskii doesn’t cover some good and varied territory between Moscow and Papeete: he incorporates a bit of carnival with Bezukladnikov’s gambling success, gives his character the ability to read books telepathically (wow!), and works in a reference to Ecclesiastes with “He who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” The book, predictably, I think, ends with a simple truth that I won’t reveal, lest you want to read the book, too. Alas, unless you’re Bezukladnikov and have the power to know everything, you’ll need to know either Russian or French (for the Gallimard translation from Véronique Patte) to read the book.

The Man Who Knew Everything didn’t meet my high expectations – those finalists for multiple major awards can be awfully tricky! – but it was a decent piece of intelligent entertainment with lots of fun bits. I particularly enjoyed the TV interview, which combined the host’s huckster-like persona with Bezukladnikov’s descriptions of his situation and a sharp, truthful answer to a guest in the studio audience. And when Bezukladnikov says people generally only know see about six percent of what goes on around us because we’re not capable of seeing the rest, I have to wonder if he might be telling the truth.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2.5 or 3.0, not particularly difficult, plus the book has relatively short chapters, making for a good feeling of progress.

Up Next: Favorites of 2010, then some medium-length fiction from Gleb Alekseev, a find from my October visit to the Russian bookstore in Tarzana. I’ll also be compiling a list of Russian-English translations that came out in 2010 and are expected in 2011… Reports on new releases would be most welcome!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mixing Genres in Luk’ianov’s Deep Drilling

Aleksei Luk’ianov’s Глубокое бурение (Deep Drilling) is an entertaining long story/short novel that begins with a bang, when a meteorite hits the Kremlin. I wouldn’t call Deep Drilling a disaster story, though: Luk’ianov’s blend of stylized reality and the fantastic is less concerned about the fate of the government than with the peculiar, everyday adventures of a group of railroad workers. Deep Drilling won two awards for fantasy writing in 2009: the Bronze Snail for medium-length fiction, and the Noon 21st Century award for prose.

Part of the fun of Deep Drilling is that Luk’ianov, a blacksmith, incorporates his work experiences – even creating a blacksmith and award-winning author named Lyokha – into his fiction. And to good effect: though Luk’ianov’s language was challenging at times for this nonnative reader, it was worth the effort because of his feel for colloquial speech. He also has a way with ribald humor – Deep Drilling includes some talking body parts – that made me laugh out loud, probably because it’s so goofy and readable that it couldn’t offend.

Deep Drilling addresses politics, too, but usually through the eyes of good-natured, humorous people who do madcap things, like drilling to the other side of the damaged earth. (Disclosure: This may appeal to me because I was one of those kids who was always trying to dig to China.) Boris Strugatskii, who wrote in introductory endorsement blurb to the Deep Drilling collection and is the one and only Bronze Snail judge, also likens Deep Drilling to a fish story. I couldn’t agree more, though I respectfully disagree with Strugatskii’s assertion that Luk’ianov had enough material in Deep Drilling for a novel. Maybe that’s true, but I think Deep Drilling would have lost its energy if it had been longer.

Luk’ianov’s honors go beyond the Bronze Snail and the Noon awards: he was also, twice, a finalist for the Debut Prize. He came to the U.S. last month, and I met him in New York at a book launch party for Squaring the Circle, which includes Marian Schwartz’s translation of one of his stories. (Disclosure: I was involved in that book project, too.) I enjoyed talking with Aleksei: he’s funny and sincere, and it was interesting to hear his thoughts on contemporary Russian fiction. During the program’s Q&A, he recommended Aleksei Ivanov’s work, particularly Сердце Пармы (The Heart of Parma) and Золото бунта (Gold of the Rebellion). The Russian-language speech Luk’ianov prepared for U.S. events is here.

On a more global note: Reading Deep Drilling, with its fantastical twists and blend of genres, then following it with two more books that layer fantasy onto reality (or reality onto fantasy?), brought out for me, yet again, the reality of the unreal in contemporary Russian fiction. Yes, I already knew this – the reality-fantasy combination was a big focus of Russian Book Week at the 2010 London Book Fair – but I don’t know if I’ve ever read so many books, in succession, with threads of mysticism and/or fantasy. Before Deep Drilling¸ there were Frau Scar, Moscow 2042, Matisse, Kazaroza, and Light in the Window, all of which, arguably (I know I’m stretching things most with Kazaroza), contained major or minor elements of something mystical, magical, or otherwise unreal.

In case you’re wondering, the first of my two books after Deep Drilling was/is Mariam Petrosian’s Дом, в котором (The House Where/in Which), which I’m sorry to say I set aside for now: it’s a big book (1043 grams, according to Ozon, and 950+ pages) I’d been hoping to settle in with for a while. Unfortunately, its schematic characters, who all carry nicknames like Sphinx and Smoker, and sluggish narrative make it very unsatisfying. On the surface, it’s a book about a House (always in caps) for disabled children and teenagers; the book (or maybe the House?) felt claustrophobic. I think it falls squarely into the “it’s just not my book” category but I will give it another chance. The House has been very popular, so I’m definitely in the minority on this one.

Which leads me to my Up Next book: Igor Sakhnovskii’s Человек, который знал всё (The Man Who Knew Everything), another Bronze Snail winner that, like House, was also a Booker and Big Book finalist. I’m enjoying it much more, though Sakhnovskii’s mixture of genres – the unreal, crime, action, spy, a bit of a love story – feels a little patched together. The basic plot: After an incident with a big electrical shock, the title man has the power to know whatever he wants to know.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Scars that Bind: Mamedov’s Frau Scar

Afanasii Mamedov’s Фрау Шрам (Frau Scar) is a pleasant literary jumble of metafiction and storytelling, remembrances of childhood, a vacation fling, ethnic and national identity, and descriptions of cities. A young writer named Ilya, who lives in Moscow (in Master and Margarita territory), tells the story of his short, present-day vacation to visit his mother in Baku. Ilya often wanders from his simple, linear narrative about the vacation, meandering into detailed childhood memories, dreams, and letters. I’ll meander, too, as I describe the book…

Frau Scar, a 2003 Booker Prize finalist, takes place in 1992, during Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia and a domestic political crisis – there is a curfew during Ilya’s vacation, and he sees young soldiers going off to fight. Ilya also mentions the 1991 coup attempt in Russia; he and his father both ended up at the Russian White House.

Mamedov throws in plentiful details that conjure up the atmosphere of the period. For example, Ilya’s landlady’s significant other, Christopher, makes an appearance on the TV show “Третий глаз” (“The Third Eye”), a talk show about the supernatural. (Watching the beginning of this YouTube clip brought back memories!) Later, in Baku, Ilya and his mother buy a TV antenna that attracts the neighbors; they come to watch “Santa Barbara.” And Sergei Dovlatov is a constant presence in Frau Scar: the simplest example is that Ilya buys a Dovlatov book in Baku, several times mentions reading it, and even says Dovlatov isn’t his writer. He prefers art where there’s “много лишнего,” literally “a lot of extra,” then mentions Sasha Sokolov… whose Палисандрия (Astrophobia) and Школа для дураков (A School for Fools) have been languishing on my shelf for years.

Oddly, part of the fun of Frau Scar is that it’s a little – okay, maybe even a lot – confusing at times, thanks to all the extra-but-crucial, and sometimes contradictory, characters, moods, and details that populate the book. Mamedov even alerts the reader that things may be odd: early on, one of Ilya’s coworkers asks him about going on vacation, saying, “Покарнавалить, значит, решил?” The verb “покарнавалить,” derived from “carnival,” isn’t very common, but it’s perfect for asking if someone’s about to go for some off-kilter fun.

A few pages later, Ilya gets his hair cut and starts to see, through a cascade of mirror images, pictures of his childhood through the looking glass… later, we visit Baku’s maze-like old city, where the houses sit close together. I should also mention that Ilya grew up on Baku’s Second Parallel Street, another indication of all the various worlds and perspectives – Russian, Azeri, Jewish; upstairs, downstairs; humorous, deadly serious; and even two eyes, three eyes – that coexist in the book.

You may be wondering how the book got its name. In one of the novel’s metafiction touches, Ilya gives the name Frau Scar to the woman with whom he has his vacation romance; some affairs leave indelible marks. Frau Scar left plenty of (injury-free!) traces on me, and it was very enjoyable to read, though it’s tough to explore and appreciate all the book’s corners and detours in just one reading. I certainly appreciated Mamedov’s ability to embellish a straightforward story with reminiscences, politics, and humor that are simultaneously typical and unique. Mamedov’s combination of material somehow work, probably because our stories and identities are so mobile and Ilya is such an amiable storyteller. I particularly enjoyed the Baku scenes, which brought back memories of my own travel…

Up next: Sergei Lukyanov’s Глубокое бурение (Deep Drilling).

Baku/Caspian Sea photo from Jacobolus, David Chamberlain, via Wikipedia.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag: The Pain of History

Drawings from the Gulag makes explicit the capacity one individual has to destroy another. It shows how moral borders disintegrate, and how the descent into indifference can be sanctioned, justified and excused in pursuit of a flawed ideology.

-the last two lines of the introduction to Drawings from the Gulag

Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag is a deeply disturbing book that documents, through detailed drawings and concise captions, the horrors of the Soviet Gulag system. Drawings begins with the conception of the system, which Baldaev dates to 1917; that panel carries a dedication to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “a giant of Russian literature.” A bit of background: Baldaev lived part of his childhood in an orphanage for children of enemies of the people; he later worked as a warden in the Kresty prison in Leningrad.

Drawings from the Gulag, published by Fuel, preserves Baldaev’s descriptive Russian-language captions for each panel and provides English-language translations from Polly Gannon and Ast A. Moore, plus footnotes and quotes from other sources that decipher acronyms and offer further information. The drawings are divided into categories – e.g. journey to the camp, children, and the country becomes a Gulag – and a series of short articles in the back of the book offers additional background, including definitions of slang. By depicting political prisoners and criminals, as well as the workers who interrogated, guarded, and maltreated them, the book becomes a small pictorial dictionary of intense suffering.

I knew Drawings from the Gulag would be rough, uncomfortable reading because of its unsparing, brutal, and graphic accounts of prison camp torture, sexual abuse, and other forms of humiliation and debasement, but I wasn’t expecting it to affect me as deeply as it did. I read in small installments. Baldaev’s black-and-white drawings balance the grotesque and the realistic in each panel, revealing and releasing more pain and disdain, from his subjects (and, I suspect, Baldaev) than photos could. Many drawings include prisoners’ tattoos: Baldaev meticulously recorded the meanings of tattoos, and I’ve known his work for years because of his contributions to a Russian dictionary of prison language that has a section on tattoos.

Drawings from the Gulag is an angry book – the title for a panel on the holodomor reads “Famine – dearest child and companion of the Communist Party” – and Baldaev’s last chapter of drawings compares the Gulag system to the Holocaust. That section of the book includes pages about the sinking of barges carrying prisoners, mass killings in Kuropaty, and mass shootings of enemies of the people. Many of Baldaev’s drawings depict, with sharp irony, patriotic slogans: a prison wall quotes Beria with “The Gulag is the best correctional institution for criminals in the world.”

More than anything, I wish that life hadn’t given Baldaev – or anybody else – the experiences and raw material that inspired him to create Drawings from the Gulag. Nearly everything that I’ve tried to write about the book’s many merits feels trivial. But I will say this: given the history of the camps and the large body of Russian-language fiction that they spawned, I found in Drawings, like the dictionary to which Baldaev contributed, a very valuable account of what happened in the Gulag and the language used to describe the horrendous, unthinkable things that people did to each other.

For more: Fuel’s Web site has a small slide show of images from the book.

For a different angle on the book and further perspective on Baldaev himself: Roland Elliott Brown writes in a review in The Observer that “Viewers may also question whether the artistic merits of Baldaev’s drawings redeem their potential prurience”… and (sort of) answers his own rhetorical question about merits by comparing Baldaev’s work to that of Goya and Doré. From my perspective: Having read historical and fictional accounts of guards’ abuses of women in the camps – Aksyonov’s Generations of Winter springs to mind first – I would have been very surprised if Baldaev’s book hadn’t included sexual content.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Fuel editor Damon Murray for contacting me and sending Drawings from the Gulag.

Up Next: Afanasii Mamedov’s Фрау Шрам (Frau Scar), a not-too-long novel that takes place during the 1990s in Moscow and Baku. It’s oddly enjoyable.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

2010 Russian Booker Awarded to Koliadina

The 2010 Russian Booker Prize was awarded to Elena Koliadina today for her novel Цветочный крест (The Cross of Flowers or The Flower Cross, take your pick), about a 17th-century man of the cloth, father Loggin.

The news article announcing the award notes that The Cross of Flowers generated plentiful reader reaction. In summary: Lenta mentions negative reviews criticizing Koliadina’s stylized use of old Russian language, comical eroticism, lack of feel for language, and, to top it all off, “элементарное невежество,” “basic ignorance/lack of manners.” I guess nobody should be surprised about any of this since the line under the novel’s title reads “роман-катавасия” – “novel-muddle.”

The Lenta article quotes [indirectly] Koliadina as saying she’d always wanted to write a novel about love and sex but couldn’t find the right words in contemporary Russian. That, apparently, inspired her to seek shelter in pre-Petrine Russian. The key word in the first sentence, though, is афедрон/aphedron, which apparently hails from Greece. Афедрон isn’t in my Russian dictionaries, but the Internet tells me it can mean both latrine and anus in Russian… the specific meaning quickly becomes clear on the first page of the novel. So do the stylistic peculiarities of Koliadina’s writing.

The novel is currently only available in journal form; AST will release it as a book sometime around the new year holiday. For now, find The Cross of Flowers online at the Вологодская литература (Vologda Literature) site, here: beginning middle end.


An English-language article about the award, from Voice of Russia, with a plot summary plus comments from Booker secretary Igor Shaitanov.

Further Russian-language commentary on the book: has a brief news item about the post-award scandal, followed by lots of very interesting comments. I particularly enjoyed reading critic Aleksandr Gavrilov's critique of the novel's stylistics; he essentially says it's sloppy and overloaded, which was my impression, too, from reading the first page and some random pages further in. (Gavrilov read the whole thing.) Snob's summary notes that one article about the award, from Kommersant, mentions that the Booker's five-year contract with its sponsor -- BP! -- is ending. Kommersant writer Anna Narinskaia wonders if the award was meant as a "жест" (gesture) indicating that the Booker organizers are tired of the award. Indeed.

-A piece by Artyom Efimov on, discusses the post-award scandal and plays on Koliadina's use of the word "aphedron."

-The blogger who writes as zametilprosto seemed to root most for Petrosian to win the Booker but liked Cross second-best. Zametilprosto says the book is far more focused on holiness and sin than love and sex. A commenter agreed and calls the book easy but dull/boring (скучно) reading.

-Another news article. This one has quotes from Koliadina... including how her work for Космополитен got her going on the book.

-Critic Andrei Nemzer's absolutely scathing commentary on the award and the book.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

2010 Big Book Award to Basinskii

Pavel Basinskii won the 2010 Big Book award for Лев Толстой: Бегство из рая (Lev Tolstoy: Escape from Paradise/Heaven). The publisher’s blurb on describes the book as a reconstruction of what happened between the time Tolstoy left home and his death not long after; the book evidently also describes Tolstoy’s "family drama." The award feels unusually timely because Tolstoy died almost exactly 100 years ago, on November 20, 1910. The book has been quite popular: comments on ozon are very positive, and Escape was no. 6 on today’s bestseller list. An excerpt is available on Прочтение.

Second prize went to Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Перс (The Persian), a rather thick novel about a Russian émigré who returns to the Former Soviet Union after a difficult divorce. I tried starting The Persian a month or so ago but couldn’t get into it; I’ll have to give it another go soon, particularly because I’m interested in the Caspian location. An excerpt is available on Прочтение.

Finally, Viktor Pelevin took third prize – after winning the readers’ choice award yesterday, too – for t. Pelevin’s books are always difficult to describe, so I’ll leave plot summary to this article. I’ve never been a big Pelevin fan but t sounds more interesting to me than most of his previous books, in part because he sets part of t in the early 20th century. Ozon has the first pages online.

I haven’t been tracking Big Book opinion enough to have a good feel for favorites, but I will say that, statistically speaking, I was a real failure this year: I read five of the 14 finalists and none of them won any prizes! At least I tried The Persian and (twice!) almost bought t.

Edit: Photos of the ceremony are online here.

Edit: Thank you to The Literary Saloon for mentioning that a (fairly brief) excerpt of the book is available online here, thanks to Rossiyskaya gazeta and The Telegraph. The piece mentions that the book is being translated into English.

Tolstoy death mask image from author Daniel Hass and user Unklscrufy, via Wikipedia.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How Far Away Is 2042? & Misc.

Though Vladimir Voinovich’s (Москва 2042) Moscow 2042 doesn’t feel quite as fresh now as it did when it came out in the ‘80s – will people anywhere watch TV in 2042? – it’s still plenty fun, and it still feels painfully relevant. I think the last name of one of the characters, “Karnavalov,” sums up a lot about the book: this satirical, dystopian novel written by an exiled writer certainly serves up a nice dose of carnival and, of course, absurdity.

So what happens? In 1982, Kartsev, a Russian writer living in Germany, boards a special Lufthansa flight that takes him to 2042 Moscow. Some of Kartsev’s acquaintances from his years in the Soviet Union – including Sim Simych Karnavalov, a reclusive writer who rather resembles Solzhenitsyn – express interest in his travel. I don’t think it will surprise many readers when they reappear in 2042 Moscow. Moscow in 2042 is ruled by a leader called the Genialissimus whose real name (sort of) is Berii Ilich Vzroslyi. His first two names refer to past leaders, and his last translates to “adult.” The names are part of the book’s fun: other characters include Dzerzhin (from Dzerzhinskii) and Gorizont (horizon).

Voinovich works a lot into less than 400 pages. There’s Kartsev’s writerly jealously of Karnavalov, a 2042 regime that combines religion with politics (hmm…), very funny scenes of collective writing processes, reflections on reality, and lots of poop humor. I’ll take Voinovich’s writing about “secondary” material over Sorokin’s any day, particularly since most of it – such as Kartsev finding himself in the “Third Kaka” – makes a point without being ponderous. Citizens in 2042 turn in their waste so they may eat… and there are multiple mentions of that staple Russian food, sausage. Moscow 2042 also includes references to classic literature, a special showing of Dallas, word play in the names of communist institutions, and a special isolation for Moscow. I don’t want to write more, lest I spoil the fun. I’ve always enjoyed Voinovich and would certainly recommend Moscow 2042 to anyone who enjoys dystopian satire, a bit of time travel, and humor both high and low. Moscow 2042 is available in translation.

The Big Book Award announced today that Viktor Pelevin’s t won its readers’ choice award; 8,615 readers voted over the Internet. Evgenii Kliuev’s Андерманир штук (Something Else for You) was second-most popular among readers; the book was a little too messy and wandering for me to love but I’m sure it won readers over with its magical atmosphere and positivity (previous post). Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel), which I did love, took third (previous post). The jury’s selections will be named tomorrow.

My blogger colleague Marie Cloutier, a.k.a. Boston Bibliophile, interviewed me as part of her November Russo-Biblio Extravaganza. I thoroughly enjoyed answering her questions but it’s been even more fun reading her takes on some Russian books I should read one of these days. I’m especially looking forward to her thoughts on Moscow 2042.

Up Next: I’m still mulling over Dovlatov’s underwhelming Zone and working my way through Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag, a unique and important book that I’ve been reading in small installments. I’m continuing the theme by rereading Solzhenitsyn’s (In) The First Circle. More immediately: I’ll report on the Big Book Award winners tomorrow…

Sausage photo credit: adauzie, via

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ilichevskii’s Matisse: Novel as Cut Out?

No, I haven’t changed my focus to art history… And Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Booker-winning novel Матисс (Matisse) has little to do with Henri Matisse, at least at first glimpse. Describing Matisse is unusually challenging because it’s an ambitious, lumpy novel that uses complex, often poetic imagery and language to present social, existential, and metaphysical angles on post-Soviet Russia.

Ilichevskii focuses much of his attention on Leonid Korolev (korol’=king), an orphan who didn’t have a proper home until adulthood. He becomes a physicist: Korolev likes logic and hangs out at a linear accelerator. He was born in 1970, placing him in the generation that came of age during perestroika. He sees fear everywhere and has claustrophobia.

Matisse begins, however, by showing two Moscow homeless people, Vadya and Nadya. Ilichevskii ambles through a fair bit of biographical and geographical territory with them before we learn much about Korolev, who knows Vadya and Nadya because they sleep in the stairwell of his apartment building. Biography, Ilichevskii tells us, is a homeless person’s only property, and truth is a relative concept.

About halfway through Matisse, Korolev decides to free himself of his responsibilities, job, and boss, an old friend who’s also helped Korolev buy an apartment. Korolev tosses his keys in a river after preparing himself to live hungry and on the run as a hobo. A fair bit of philosophizing is behind Korolev’s decision, and it hardly seemed to matter whether it’s convincing or not: despite Matisse’s social content, with a focus on imagery and an almost cubist feel, Matisse is less a look in the mirror than a stylized impression of reality.

I think the best passages in Matisse take place underground, where Korolev really does become a king, wandering through subway tunnels and discovering hidden routes and stations. He loves the underground silence, piercing it by screaming when he enters new places. In one chilling scene, Korolev comes face to face with a passenger on a train; he also turns up civil defense sites and a model of the Kremlin.

Many elements in Matisse reminded me of other books. Vladimir Makanin’s Андеграунд (Underground) also focuses on an “intelligent” who lacks a permanent home or job. (This previous post shows other parallels, plus predecessors.) Makanin’s later Иsпуг (Fear), which I didn’t finish, covers similar territory and, like Matisse, includes an account of the October Events of 1993. The main characters in both Makanin books work as watchmen, as does Korolev for a short time.

I had high hopes for Matisse but found it difficult to enjoy because I didn’t think it quite jelled: Matisse contains many, many beautiful, touching, and metaphysically frightening passages, but Ilichevskii’s pace feels a bit too leisurely and his path too random as he describes the lives of Korolev, Vadya, and Nadya, who end up wandering together. Many episodes, especially Nadya’s love for the Moscow zoo and Korolev’s discoveries underground, are memorable, but Matisse’s chunks of reality and metaphor or allegory didn’t quite fit together for me, even if I regard the book – and the most colorful episodes in Korolev’s life – as a novel with a form that resembles Matisse’s cut out “The Snail.”

Level for non-native readers of English: Difficult language and syntax, with many dense passages, 4/5. I didn’t find the rewards of, say, Slavnikova’s 2017, which was as difficult to read as Matisse but presented a more compelling view of a world.

Up next: Dovlatov’s underwhelming Zone and Danzig Baldaev’s important Drawings from the Gulag. Then Voinovich’s Moscow 2042.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NOSE Award Short List + Translation News + NY Events

Award season continues... The NOSE Award cut its long list of 19 books to a shortish list of nine last week. The winners will be chosen in late January 2011.

I’m still feeling slow, lazy, and confused after “fall back,” yesterday’s storm-induced power outage, and endless dreary rain – what a way to start a week! – so I’m very happy that so many of the books I mentioned in my NOSE long list post made it to the short list. Recycling is good:

Vasilii Avchenko’s Правый руль (Wheel on the Right) is a “documentary novel” about the love of drivers in the Russian Far East for used cars imported from Japan.

Publisher Vremia calls Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Raiad) social fantasy. (One of you recommended his ГенАцид to me; it’s available in a shortened form here.)

Lidiia Golovkova’s Сухановская тюрьма (Sukhanov Prison) is about a secret prison run by the NKVD and Ministry of State Security during the Soviet era; the prison was in a monastery.

Aleksei Ivanov’s Хребет России (Russia’s Spine or Russia’s Mountain Range), a book of material (essays and photos) about the Urals; the book is based on a four-part TV miniseries from Ivanov and Leonid Parfenov. (previous post about Ivanov’s Geographer)

Pavel Nerler’s Слово и "дело" Осипа Мандельштама: книга доносов, допросов и обвинительных заключений... (The Word and "Deed" [Case] of Osip Mandel'shtam: A Book of Denunciations, Interrogations, and Indictments.)

Maksim Osipov’s Грех жаловаться (literally, It’s a Sin to Complain… more Maine-ish, Can’t Complain), writings by a rural doctor. In 2007 Osipov received an award from the journal Знамя, which has published his work. Online here.

According to an online bookstore listing, Viktor Pelevin’s T (or t) involves a martial arts master named count T. and a cabbalistic demon named Ariel who claims to have created the world and (of course!) the count.

Pavel Peppershtein’s Весна (Spring) is a collection of short stories that publisher Ad Marginem describes as “psychedelic realism.”

I already read Vladimir Sorokin’s Метель (The Blizzard) (previous post).

Translation News. Translator Anna Gunin wrote to mention that her translation of German Sadulaev’s Я - чеченец! (I Am a Chechen!) was released last week; publisher is Harvill Secker… Last week Three Percent posted updated spreadsheets of new translations for 2010 and 2011; they’re available for download here, though you may want to check back soon for updated updates. I’ll wait until those appear before posting about titles I haven’t already mentioned.

Snob to Publish Nabokov Letters. The November issue of Сноб will publish a selection of Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to his wife. Here’s the online version of the article; it’s only available in full to registered site users but you can still see a photo of one of Nabokov’s letters, with a butterfly… The November issue of Snob focuses on literature, which means they’re now really trying to get me to put up the money to subscribe! Their trial deal for three free issues is still on; click here.

New York Events: If you’ll be in New York on Tuesday, November 16 at 6.30 p.m., please come to Pravda for the book launch party of Squaring the Circle: Winners of the Debut Prize for Fiction. I’ll be there, as will editor Natasha Perova of Glas and three of the writers whose stories were translated for the book. There will be readings; a discussion moderated by Eliot Borenstein, a professor of Russian and Slavic studies at NYU; and a reception. The event is free and space is limited, so register through the CEC ArtsLink Website here. (FYI: The system will pop up a confirmation window rather than sending you an e-mail message.) The Brooklyn Public Library will host a Squaring the Circle reading, too, on Sunday, November 14, at 1.30 p.m. More information is available here.

Up next: Yes, the long-suffering Matisse entry is coming soon, as is a post on Dovlatov’s Zone and Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag. Last night, I started rereading Voinovich’s Moscow 2042; it’s just the thing for these cold, dark November nights.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

News Roundup: Award to Tait, More Chekhov, Snob, LA-Area Bookstore, and More

After a quick trip to the West Coast last weekend, I’m all about news this week... My thoughts on Ilichevskii’s Matisse, will be on the way soon: I finished Matisse on a flight to California and then wrote a draft post, but I don’t think I write well over the Great Lakes.

First English PEN Literature in Translation Award. I learned from the Three Percent blog that Arch Tait will soon receive English PEN Literature’s first translation award, for his translation of Anna Politkovskaya’s Putin’s Russia, published by Harvill Press/Harvill Secker. The award will be presented on November 8.

I’m still making my way through my first issue of Сноб (Snob) magazine… and I still haven’t decided what I think of it. One Bookshelf reader, Steven Lubman, commented that Snob is “opulent,” and that’s a very apt description: it’s beautifully produced, with heavy paper, inserted bookmarks (!), splashy design, and excellent photographs. My biggest problem with Snob (other than the irritating name) is the same problem I face with other magazines: it’s a magazine, and I prefer reading books, specifically novels, at the end of the day.

That means I don’t gravitate toward Snob, though I thoroughly enjoyed an interview with Igor Sutyagin and a story by Zakhar Prilepin about the removed intimacies of Russian apartment living. I have a mixed impression of Snob’s interview format: several Snob “project” participants interviewed Sutyagin, giving that piece varied perspectives. But I thought the participant count for Q&A with Boris Akunin was too high, making the piece read like a series of micro-interviews. It read easily but the lack of continuity made it unsatisfying. The new issue of Snob is still in my office in its cardboard sleeve; it contains fiction by Viktoria Tokareva and Dmitrii Bykov. I know I’ll get to it… but my books call to me first. Related: This week’s New York Times Magazine cover story is about Mikhail Prokhorov, Snob’s benefactor. I haven’t read the whole thing but a quick skim immediately turned up “Proky” saying, “I don’t read.” Snob editor Masha Gessen is quoted as replying, “Then I guess we can write whatever we want!”

Speaking of loving books: travel is always more fun with an excursion to a Russian bookstore, so I stopped at a shop just off Highway 101 in Tarzana, California, last week. I bought so many books for $76 that I went straight to the post office, filled a large flat rate box, and sent it home. I focused on the first half of the twentieth century but also bought a book of stories by Fazil Iskander – I’m still hoping to find a truly favorite writer whose name begins with I/И so I can continue my A to Я series – and saw lots of detective novels and books by popular literary fiction writers such as Rubina, Sorokin, and Ulitskaya. I was happy to find an affordable set of Sholokhov’s Тихий Дон (The Quiet Don/Quiet Flows the Don), which Steven Lubman also mentioned in his afore-mentioned comment… I’ve been wanting to try the Don again after not liking it, in translation, much years ago. I also bought a collection of Boris Vasil’ev’s short novels and Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle, which I read and liked years ago in translation. I’ve been so completely focused on very recent releases for so long that I’m looking forward to reading and rereading some modern classics.

Various Translation Releases &tc. The fall 2010 issue of Чтения/Readings focuses on Anton Chekhov. The journal is bilingual; the table of contents is online… More A.P. Chekhov news: Stanford University Press will release Five Plays, with new translations by Marina Brodskaya, in November. Tobias Wolff’s introduction is available online… New York Review Books released The Road, an eclectic collection of writings by Vasily Grossman, edited by Robert Chandler and translated by Elizabeth Chandler, Robert Chandler, and Olga Mukovnikova. Ken Kalfus’s review from The New York Times Book Review is online here… Today’s New York Times Book Review includes a piece about Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which reviewer Joshua Hammer called an “endlessly fascinating tale.” I enjoyed the excerpts in The New Yorker very much but am not sure I’m up for a 500-page nonfiction book now that I have so many thick novels on the shelf… One final note: my review of Martin Cruz Smith’s Three Stations, which I wrote for The Pennsylvania Gazette, my university’s alumni magazine, is online here. I’m especially excited because this is my first review for a print publication.

Up next: The Matisse piece, drafted aloft, soon to be edited on land. Then Dovlatov’s Зона (The Zone), which took time to hook me. I’m reading The Zone together with Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag, which is a tremendously useful and nicely designed documentary book about the Gulag system.

Image credit: Chekhov’s signature, from user 53RUStm, via Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Killing Words?: Iuzefovich’s Kazaroza

Leonid (Yuzefovich) Iuzefovich’s "Казароза" (Kazaroza) is a pleasantly perplexing book: on the surface it’s a heady murder mystery that involves Esperanto and is set in two time tracks, with more 1920 and less 1975. Though the book wasn’t difficult to read I – that stubborn reader so partial to smooth narrative unless the book is called War and Peace or Daniel Stein – came away feeling a little jumbled after sorting through a fragmented, cubist-feeling novel that toggles between decades and presents texts for songs, articles, and even posters.

If forced to summarize in a phrase what Kazaroza is “about,” I’d probably choose something like this: fragmentation of many types and utopian ideas for bringing people together. With a setting that involves the civil war and multiple references to the Tower of Babel, Iuzefovich emphasizes cultural and political divisions. As for the underlying plot: singer Zinaida Kazaroza is shot and killed during a concert at an Esperanto club while singing an Esperanto version of Lermontov’s Сон (“The Dream”; the word also means “sleep”). Of course the poem’s words have significance in the scene, and murder is the ultimate act of division, separating life from a body.

Iuzefovich’s love for combining fact and fiction means he works in information about the history and politics of Esperanto, too. A brief historical digression that’s relevant to the novel: Esperanto originated with one Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a polyglot who grew up in Bialystok, (then) Russia. Of course I had no idea that the first book about Esperanto was written, by Zamenhof, in Russian, and published in 1887. Nor did I know about political and religious implications of Esperanto, or conflicts that arose within the Esperanto community when some saw Zamenhof’s Esperanto as too inflexible. Also: Iuzefovich based Kazaroza on a relative who sang under the name Zinaida Kazaroza.

Iuzefovich includes many lovely descriptions of people and habits (I particularly liked: “Врал он нередко, но всегда сухими губами” – “He lied sometimes, but always with dry lips.”), emphasizes the importance attached to labels by describing the naming and renaming of streets, and shows us how the living try to take possession of the contents of the dead Kazaroza’s purse. (You know what they say about a woman’s purse…) I suppose it’s fitting that Kazaroza, a sort-of-a-detective novel that’s wound up in the elusiveness of language and unity, seems so indescribable. And that I may read this oddly enjoyable book again – it’s grown on me – taking more time to play metaphysical detective myself and piece together the shards.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: I’m not sure… Moderate? I thought the choppy narrative was more difficult than the vocabulary.

Up next: Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s "Матисс" (Matisse), another perplexing book, though less enjoyable than Kazaroza.

P.S.: I don’t often hear about Russian-related translator events so am very happy to mention a few upcoming talks... Marian Schwartz will speak twice next week, once reading from her translation of Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, once about “The Literary Translator and U.S. Publishing.” Details are on her site, here.

On October 30, at 5.30-7.30 p.m., Crawford Doyle Booksellers, an independent bookstore at 1082 Madison Avenue in New York City, will host Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They’ll read from their new translation of Doctor Zhivago.

Image credit: The Esperanto page on Wikipedia.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Three Years of Russian Book Blogging

I love putting together posts for my blog’s birthday! It’s fun marking the passage of time – it’s hard to believe I’ve already been blogging for three full years – and it’s always interesting to look at statistics about what visitors seek and read.

It’s you, the readers who visit the Bookshelf, who make blogging so rewarding. I didn’t have many expectations when I started blogging three years ago, but I certainly didn’t think I’d meet so many of you in person and by e-mail. I love the solitariness of my reading and writing, but I also love the fellowship that so often grows around books. A big thanks to all of you for your comments, messages, and ideas.

Geography. Not much has changed in Bookshelf geography since last year: by country, the largest number of visits comes from the United States, but many of you are in the U.K., Russia, Canada, and Italy. The top city is London, which makes me look forward to the 2011 London Book Fair even more.

Popular Posts & Search Terms. My “Overcoat” post is still the most popular on the blog, followed by my list of pre-revolutionary Top 10 Greatest Hits. Next: Dostoevsky’s The Possessed/Devils, Pushkin’s Belkin Tales, and Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein. The giant surprise for this year is at number 7: my post mentioning the New York Times article about Elena Chizhova. Variants on Chizhova’s name are among the top searches for the past year, too. I wish I could say I enjoyed her Booker-winning Время женщин (A Time of Women) more than I did. The combination of “Prussian Bride” and “Buida” comes up consistently, too. Buida’s books never seem to be available when I look for them; I may need to order something up through interlibrary loan one of these days.

Odd Recent Search Terms. Scanning through the search terms that bring people to the Bookshelf often provides decent entertainment. The mysterious combination of “Zinik” and “Sorokin,” which used to come up regularly, has disappeared and there haven’t been many truly strange combos lately but here are a few that got me imagining or wanting to answer:

  • Vladimir Sorokin my email. Is someone treating Google as a seer that knows why Sorokin hasn’t answered an e-mail message?
  • How enjoying is reading Russian. People ask me this all the time. It’s easy to say I enjoy my Russian reading but I have difficulty explaining what, exactly, is so much fun. I’m sure part of the enjoyment of reading Russian comes from the fact that I read Russian slower than I read English. For me, reading Russian takes more concentration and attention than reading English, making Russian reading a far more intense experience. (This Googler probably landed on this page.)
  • Gogol read. Yes, please do read Gogol! I particularly recommend two short stories as starters: the afore-mentioned “Overcoat” and “The Nose.”
  • 600 Pages of Dostoevsky. I can’t read this querier’s mind but want to think the person sought a recommendation of 600 especially interesting pages of Dostoevsky. Well! Six hundred pages eliminates most of the big books, (if they’re printed in legible type and/or sold without a magnifying glass), though some translations of Crime and Punishment weigh in with page counts just under 600. Not a bad option, of course, though my personal choice would be selected short novels and stories. There’s lots to choose from: the “Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers K., Notes from the Underground, The Gambler, White Nights, House of the Dead, and the derivative but important Double… There are plenty of other Dostoevsky short novels and long stories I keep promising myself I’ll read.

On that note, I’ll leave and say another huge thank you – огромное спасибо – to all of you for your visits, encouragement, and reading suggestions over the last three years!

Up next: Yuzefovich’s Казароза (Kazaroza), which has been growing on my since I finished it, and then Ilichevskii’s Матисс (Matisse), which only really started to grab me after about 170 pages...

Cupcake photo: nazreth, via stock.xchng.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tarkovskii and Kuraev Win Yasnaya Polyana Awards

I love the fast pace of the Yasnaya Polyana award process: the winners were named today, only a month after I wrote about the finalists. Mikhail Tarkovskii won for his story collection Замороженное время (Frozen Time), about people who live along the Yenisei River.

One story from the collection, Дед,” is available on Tarkovskii’s Web site. (If only it had paragraph breaks!) Other pieces, including Кондромо,” which was a Belkin Prize finalist in 2003, are on Журнальный зал.

Mikhail Kuraev won the Contemporary Classic award. Kuraev is a versatile writer: I didn’t initially recognize his name, but then noticed that he wrote the screenplay for Петя по дороге в Царствие Небесное (Pete on the Way to Heaven is the IMDB title), which I’ve read about. As I wondered through lists of his work, I found that three of his novellas have been translated into English: Duke University Press published Night Patrol and Other Stories, translated by Margareta O. Thompson, in 1994. It includes the story about Pete/Petya that Kuraev adapted for film; Library Journal reviewed the collection favorably. Журнальный зал has links to some of Kuraev’s other works, here.

Up next: Leonid Iuzefovich’s Казароза (Kazaroza), a not-very-long novel involving murder and Esperanto. I’d intended to post about it today but am glad for some extra time to decide what to write about this peculiarly enjoyable book… I’m now reading Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Матисс (Matisse), which begins with a lot of back story…

Kuraev's Night Patrol on Amazon
(The very small print: As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers click on my Amazon links and make purchases. Thank you!)

Image credit: Map of the Yenisei Basin from Kmusser, via Wikipedia Commons.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

2010 Russian Booker Prize Finalists

Most literature watchers are waiting for the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature but I’m happy with today’s announcement of the Russian Booker short list. The six finalists were selected from a 24-member long list; 95 books were nominated for the 2010 Booker. The winner will be announced in early December.

There are two books on the list that I’ve read, two others I’m familiar with, and two whose authors I’d never heard of before now. Here’s the short list, in (Russian) alphabetical order, by author.

  • Oleg Zaionchkovskii: Счастье возможно (Happiness Is Possible) (excerpts) (previous post)
  • Andrei Ivanov: Путешествие Ханумана на Лолланд (Hanuman’s Journey to Lolland) –the adventures of two illegal residents of Denmark, the Nepalese title character Hanuman (also the name of a Hindu deity) and a Russian friend. Hanuman apparently wants to go to Lolland, a Danish island. (review) (another review)
  • Elena Koliadina: Цветочный крест (The Cross of Flowers, perhaps), about a 17th-century man of the cloth, father Loggin. (the novel online: beginning middle end) (an interview with the author)
  • Mariam Petrosian: Дом, в котором... (The House in Which…), which won third prize in the readers’ vote for last year’s Big Book Prize.
  • German Sadulaev Шалинский рейд (The Raid on Shali), about the Chechen War. (начало) (окончание)
  • Margarita Khemlin. Клоцвог (Klotsvog) (previous post)

Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Loginov’s Light in the Window

I bought Sviatoslav Loginov’s Свет в окошке (The Light in the Window) solely on the recommendation of friends who’d loved it. I didn’t read a description of the book… so was a little surprised (though I’m not sure why) when an 84-year-old man, Il’ia Il’ich, died in the prologue and then found himself naked, but for a pouch of coins around his neck, in a sort of limbo. He soon wonders what will become of his books.

Loginov creates a vivid picture of the afterlife, where the living dead receive direct deposits into their pouches when people on earth (i.e. those in the first life), remember them. The liveliest people in this limbo reside – somehow, “live” doesn’t feel quite right – in ethnic enclaves that preserve traditions from their home countries; many famous and infamous people, who are remembered constantly, live in a guarded place called The Citadel. Loginov is able to achieve an effect similar to time travel by telling stories of long-term residents; Gogol even makes a cameo appearance.

What I found most interesting in The Light in the Window was Loginov’s exploration of memories of the dead: the reader learns, along with Il’ia Il’ich, how people in this limbo eventually fade away when the earthly people and documents who remember them die out. Loginov sets up interesting situations through Il’ia Il’ich’s relationships with family members who died before him: Il’ia Il’ich never knew his father, his son died young in Angola, and his wife committed suicide. Their interactions with Il’ia Il’ich allow Loginov to elucidate the mechanisms of limbo – such as the eeriness of the ghost phase of existence and the burdens of guarding the Citadel – and emphasize Il’ia Il’ich’s aloneness even before his money wanes. Being undead isn’t easy but Loginov includes some neat tricks that bring in a little fun without feeling too gimmicky: the undead can spend money to fulfill certain wishes, like obtaining the ability to speak other languages.

I can’t recommend The Light in the Window as highly as my friends did because I don’t think Loginov is always successful at combining his fantasy material and his memory material (I can’t quite call it philosophy) into a cohesive novel. But the book is memorable, and I think Loginov does a decent job addressing a dreaded topic without excessive moroseness or sentimentality. I don’t know about you, but I often think about memories and the dead, remembering real people I knew who died and wondering, more abstractly, how long our collective memory of ordinary people lasts. Now, of course, I’ll probably also think of Loginov’s coin-based system – and those automatic deposits into the pouch – when I remember my own friends and relatives who live primarily in the precarious limbo of memories like mine.

Level for Nonnative Readers of Russian: Moderately difficult, 3.5-4/5.

ISBN: 9785699383207

Up Next: Lenoid Iuzefovich’s Казароза (Kazaroza). This must be the first novel I’ve ever read where Esperanto plays a major role.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Khemlin’s Klotsvog: Loving the Unpleasant Narrator’s Story

Some readers loathe books about unpleasant people but I seem to be one of the oddballs who love them. Perhaps my subconscious tells me that all pleasant characters are alike but all unpleasant characters are unpleasant in their own ways? I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: I found in Margarita Khemlin’s Клоцвог (Klotsvog), a short novel narrated by a vain and immature person, Maya Klotsvog, a fascinating character study.

Maya tells the story of her life in very simple language, often throwing in Sovieticisms, often referring to herself as a pedagogue. Though Maya spends little of her life actually teaching math, she maintains a “once a teacher, always a teacher” attitude. Unfortunately, she uses her pedagogical talents primarily to manipulate and irritate family members and (oh, irony!) teachers. Maya is from Oster, Ukraine, which she says was an important Jewish center when she was born in 1930, but she says she spent part of World War 2 in evacuation in Kazakhstan. Maya and her mother worked there in a train repair factory.

Remnants of World War 2 loom over Klotsvog, and the trauma runs deep. Maya’s father died during the war, and Maya’s first husband was at the front; his wife and children died during the occupation. Maya’s mother’s second husband was a partisan. Maya’s third husband lost his parents to the war. Jewish heritage is a thick thread that runs through the book, too: Maya’s son learns Yiddish words in Oster when he lives with his grandmother, and Maya’s daughter loathes her Jewish heritage.

Given her propensity for demonstrating her pedagogical skills, Maya has difficulty getting along with other people. She has few friends but several husbands, and her relationships with her relatives are strained at best. Maya’s mother sees through her and (spoiler alert!) even keels over in the middle of a conversation, when Maya tries to pump her for information; Maya seems most upset that she’ll never got her answers. To be fair, Maya shows surprising fairness at times: she allows her first husband, who has a breakdown while eating cake in Kiev, and his new wife to live in a house she owns.

Klotsvog may not sound very exciting, but the book sucked me in from the first page thanks to Maya’s nonpretty language, calculated behavior, and matter-of-fact descriptions of Soviet-era life. Maya’s present-day narration carries an air of soap opera, something I think Maya cultivates. About 25 pages in she says: “Сейчас много бразильских и других сериалов, и у всех есть знания, как бывает в жизни.” (“Now there are lots of Brazilian and other TV series, and everybody has knowledge of what happens in life.”)

Of course Klotsvog is a literary novel, not a prime-time melodrama – it’s turned up on the long lists for this year’s Big Book, Russian Booker, and NOS(E) prizes – thanks to Khemlin’s ability to integrate the historical and the personal. Her emphasis on physical and emotional survival, and Jewish heritage elevates Klotsvog, too. But there’s something else about Khemlin’s writing that I like even more, probably because it feels a little mysterious as it holds the book together: her use of skaz techniques, which enable her to maintain Maya’s voice and wring so much life and emotion out of simple words.

I should mention that I enjoy Margarita Khemlin’s writing so much that I translated one of her short stories from Живая очередь (The Living Line) (previous post).

Reading level for non-native readers of Russian: fairly simple language, 2/5.

Up next: I set aside Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Перс (The Persian) for now, in favor of Sviatoslav Loginov’s Свет в окошке (The Light in the Window), a fantasy-ish book about life after death that three people with very differing tastes recommended…

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NOS(E) Award Long List

It is list season. The NOSE Award announced an eclectic long list -- 19 books -- today. Next up on the NOSE calendar: a short list on November 4 and then a talk show in late January 2011 to choose winners. NOSE is an annual award; it was established by the Mikhail Prokhorov Charitable Foundation. (NB: The Prokhorov Foundation writes the award name as NOS but I’m having a hard time with that...)

I’ve mentioned some of the NOSE long list books in other posts about National Bestseller, Big Book, Yasnaya Polyana, and Booker nominees, so I’ll paste in some of my previous descriptions. I chose a few other nominees randomly to give you about half the list...

Vasilii Avchenko’s Правый руль (Wheel on the Right) is a “documentary novel” about the love of drivers in the Russian Far East for used cars imported from Japan.

Lidiia Golovkova’s Сухановская тюрьма (Sukhanovka Prison) is about a secret prison run by the NKVD and Ministry of State Security during the Soviet era; the prison was in a monastery.

Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Перс (The Persian) is a novel about an émigré to the U.S. who returns to his place of birth, on the Caspian, where he sees a childhood friend who lives in a nature preserve. The Persian is next on my reading pile…

Aleksei Ivanov’s Хребет России (Russia’s Spine or Russia’s Mountain Range), a book of material (essays and photos) about the Urals; the book is based on a four-part TV miniseries from Ivanov and Leonid Parfenov. (previous post about Ivanov’s Geographer)

I’ll be posting soon about Margarita Khemlin’s Клоцвог (Klotsvog), a curiously compelling book…

Maksim Osipov’s Грех жаловаться (literally, It’s a Sin to Complain… more Maine-ish, Can’t Complain), writings by a rural doctor. In 2007 Osipov received an award from the journal Знамя, which has published his work. Online here.

I always like including Viktor Pelevin’s t because the title’s so easy to type and translate.

Pavel Peppershtein’s Весна (Spring) is described by publisher Ad Marginem as “psychedelic realism.”

German Sadulaev’s Шалинский рейд (The Raid on Shali) (начало) (окончание) is about the Chechen war.

I already read Vladimir Sorokin’s Метель (The Blizzard) (previous post).

Edit: Oops, I also meant to include Pavel Nerler’s book Слово и "дело" Осипа Мандельштама: книга доносов, допросов и обвинительных заключений... the book’s title sums everything up: The Word and "Deed" [Case] of Osip Mandel'shtam: A Book of Denunciations, Interrogations, and Indictments. has the full long list here.

P.S. It’s difficult to believe but this is, apparently, my 200th post.