Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chekhov’s 150th and NOSE Award Winners

As a late celebration of Anton Chekhov’s 150th birthday, which was January 29, today I reread Пари (“The Bet”), a very short story that I enjoyed in sixth grade. I think it must have been the first piece of Russian literature that I ever read… if I don’t count my beloved Baba Yaga tales.

The bet in “The Bet” originates with a conversation about capital punishment and imprisonment. The bet involves one man volunteering (with the hope of a fat payoff) for a long stretch of solitary confinement. The end gave our teacher a perfect chance to explain irony, though I seem to recall that “a priori” was far more problematic. The wonder of Chekhov is that “The Bet” was simple enough to discuss in sixth grade but doesn’t feel simplistic all these years later.

I’d love to hear readers’ Chekhov recommendations. “Дама с собачкой (“The Lady with the Little Dog”) and Палата No. 6 (Ward No. 6) are two of my old favorites. I never seem to read enough Chekhov, but I’m hoping to get to some new novellas – Степь (The Steppe) and Дуэль (The Duel) – this year.

On a more contemporary note, Elena Eltang won the first-ever NOSE Award for her novel Каменные клены (The Stone Maples). I’m not sure, but I think this must be the only Russian novel that includes a bed and breakfast in the Welsh moors. Winner of the readers’ award was Vladimir Sorokin’s Сахарный Кремль (Sugar Kremlin). I listed the award finalists in this previous post and wrote about the award itself here. The NOSE award winner were determined through open debate with prize finalists present.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Heavy Breathing: Samsonov’s Oxygen Limit

How far can testosterone propel a work of fiction? Yes, the fact that I’m asking that question means I think Sergei Samsonov’s Кислородный предел (The Oxygen Limit) is about testosterone. And survival of the fittest and beauty and perfection and attraction and the fear of death. There are even mentions of DNA and nucleotides. I’ve never counted, but I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book with so many uses of the words самец and самка – basically, male and female examples of a species – to refer to humans, though Tolstoy uses самка quite memorably at the end of War and Peace, describing Natasha Rostova.

Samsonov, a writer of around 30 who should not be confused with the Sergei Samsonov who’s a left wing for the Carolina Hurricanes, has compiled an intriguing and energetic but messy and unsatisfying novel about a fire in a hotel and the aftermath for several survivors. They go on a carnivalesque rampage in my favorite passages of the book, celebrating their symbolic rebirth. They then begin searching for a woman, Zoya, who was also in the hotel. One character, businessman Sergei Sukhozhilov (name root: sinew, tendon), left her in a bathtub filled with water before he fell out a window.

Water and fire and oxygen all hint at primal themes that fit with Samsonov’s focus on biological survival and continuation of the species. Sukhozhilov’s competition for the ideal Zoya includes the plastic surgeon Nagibin (root: bend), a world-class specialist in allegedly making people more attractive to potential mates. Sukhozhilov and Nagibin have already had a testy meeting playing soccer: competition and survival in The Oxygen Limit carry over to sports and business. The cast even includes an oligarch.

The Oxygen Limit’s biological and social messages are universal and important, but Samsonov’s execution often failed me. Suffocating me with reminders of his message was one problem. An easy example to cite: what I see as his overuse of самец. This may sound horribly picky, but did he think we couldn’t figure that out from the characters’ behavior and talk about biology? And I know collecting status stuff is common behavior for a certain type of самец, but I can’t disagree with critic Dmitry Bykov’s assertion that Samsonov should cut back on his descriptions of brand-name clothes and cars.

Then there’s the rhythmic prose, which was occasionally so obvious and sing-song that it slithered right off the page at me. It felt contrived. Again, I agree with Bykov: it seems to me, too, that Samsonov resorted to rhythm because he’s not yet able to express himself through precise word choice. (Bykov also says Samsonov’s prose lacks the musicality of Andrei Belyi’s; having not read Belyi in years, I’m unqualified to speak to that point.) [A very hasty next-morning edit: Languagehat to the rescue! Yesterday evening Languagehat posted an entry (here) about Belyi's use of "musical and incantory effects" and repetition in his novel Petersburg. This is wonderful material that displays many aspects of symbolist prose. I am long overdue to reread Petersburg!]

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Oxygen Limit is revealed, inadvertently, at the end of the text, on page 414. “Июль 2008 – апрель 2009” (July 2008 – April 2009). Four hundred pages in just ten months? Critic Lev Danilkin, despite praising the book far more than I ever could, suggests Samsonov has graphomania and wrote the book, with all its undigested material (amen!), in one sitting.

There’s lots, lots more I could add from Bykov and Danilkin but I don’t think it’s worth hyperventilating over The Oxygen Limit. Yes, Samsonov says a lot about human nature, and his writing shows tremendous skill, drive, and promise, but I also feel a disconcerting imbalance that tilts away from discipline. I don’t mean to sound like a scold, but a few months of rewriting might have converted all this energetic but raw material into something far more memorable.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Zamiatin Plus Znamya

Ah, the letters Ж (Zh) and З (Z)! I decided to combine them since they do fall one right after the other in the alphabet and I’ve read so little by writers with Zh and Z names.

I only have one real, true Z-rooted favorite: Evgenii Zamiatin (Yevgeny Zamyatin). And that’s thanks to one book, Мы (We), which I haven’t read in years, and a few stories, particularly “Пещера” (“The Cave”). I read We several times in translation during my college years, when I was fixated on dystopias and still hadn’t forgotten math. I should reread it, in Russian this time, and move on to some of Zamiatin’s other works, like Уездное (A Provincial Tale) and Островитяне (Islanders).

Beyond Zamiatin, I just don’t have much Ж or З experience. I always enjoy Mikhail Zoshchenko when I pick up his stories because I love his humor… but I never seem to read much because of my overwhelming preference for long stories and novels. It doesn’t help that my Zoshchenko books love to cultivate mildew. Fungus can be a positive, though: I liked Zinovy Zinik’s The Mushroom Picker (evidently known as Русофобка и фунгофил in Russian), which includes ample servings of food and laugh-out-loud humor. I read the book in translation some years ago but haven’t sought out more Zinik. I should.

I’m even worse off with Zh/Z poetry. I have faint memories of reading Vasilii Zhukovskii (Vasily Zhukovsky), whom Mirsky’s History of Russian Literature calls “the first pioneer and the accepted patriarch of the Golden Age.” And then there’s 20th-century poet Nikolai Zabolotskii, pretty much terra incognita, though on my shelf.

A Z-Related Note. Probably the easiest place to look for more of Zinik’s work is a Russian literary journal with a name beginning in З: Знамя (Znamia for “banner”). Znamia offers lots of Zinik on this page, and recent issues of the journal have published fiction by German Sadulaev, Aleksandr Snegirev, Yury Buida, and Leonid Zorin. Maybe I should start with Zorin, since his name begins with Z and Znamia has published a lot of his work. Znamia also makes annual literary awards.

The Z-List for Future Reading: Beyond getting caught up on my Zamiatin and finding more Zinik, I want to give Vladimir Zhabotinskii’s (Jabotinsky) Пятеро (The Five) another try after setting it aside a few years ago. I learned about the novel from The New Republic, which published this positive review of Michael Katz’s translation in 2005.

Ideas for more Zh and Z reading are, as always, very welcome. I’d be particularly curious to hear thoughts on Aleksandr Zinov’ev (Alexander Zinoviev), whom I’ve never read.

Illustration: Boris Kustodiev's portrait of Evgenii Zamiatin, 1923. (Via Wikipedia)

Zamyatin on Amazon

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mining the Human Landscape in Slavnikova’s 2017

Olga Slavnikova’s Booker-winning 2017 is so tough to describe that I think I’ll do something very lazy and begin with words that compactly list some of its themes: rock hound, translucence, rubies, Looking Glass (beyond), death, carnival, existentialism, false, genuine, mountain spirits, nature, reality, emptiness, illegal, companionship, revolution, secrets, Bazhov…

How does Slavnikova fuse a clutch of loosely connected plot lines about people in the illegal gem industry into a coherent philosophical novel? That’s more mysterious to me than the formation of the veins of corundum – known as rubies if red – that 2017’s people pillage in the wilderness.

2017’s main character is Krylov, a gem cutter who goes to the train station to bring a sweater to his mentor, a professor and illegal gem hunter who’s about to embark on a ruby expedition. Krylov meets an enigmatic woman at the train station. Trysts ensue: they use assumed names (Ivan and Tanya), don’t exchange contact information, and often rent a room. I’ll be honest: the lengthy portion of the book that presents Ivan and Tanya barely held my interest. There’s not enough dialogue for my (picky) taste, and the characters, their situations, and their portrayal didn’t touch me much, emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. These passages were also so dense and laden with description and metaphors, some of which felt contrived, that I had to read many more than once to feel I wasn’t missing anything important. I know that part of my problem was adjusting to Slavnikova’s style and vocabulary after simpler books but Russian readers and reviewers have also mentioned 2017’s difficult language.

Fortunately, I couldn’t abandon the book: 2017 is coming out in English translation in March (Marian Schwartz’s translation, Overlook Press). [Edit/Clarification: I have not seen the translation.] After about 100 pages, I decided that Slavnikova’s metaphors serve a practical purpose: they veil reality, adding a formal way for her to convey her messages about opacity, translucence, and what exists. Slavnikova also loads in lots of recurring symbols. Beyond the stones, some of which are as malformed as the people who find them, the book is filled with glass and mirrors. Tanya wants to go through the looking glass, and Krylov’s loving ex-wife Tamara, a high-end undertaker who holds lotteries for grieving families, has a conference room equipped with a mirrored table. Tamara also appears on a talk show that’s filmed in a studio with a mirrored floor. She brings caskets.

Slavnikova works in endless contrasts between reality and invention, too: real and synthetic gems, plastic surgery, holograms, a nonexistent city, liars, and other types of pretenders. Meanwhile, Russia is getting ready to celebrate the centenary of the 1917 revolution, and people begin dressing in white and red army uniforms, creating fake revolution that results in real deaths. Slavnikova also tosses in references to Pavel Bazhov’s Urals folk stories, which tell of mountain spirits that accompany miners. Those references made the magic and apparitions in the book feel rooted rather than fanciful.

Somewhere around the middle of 2017, this jumble of people, plot lines, and themes somehow transformed into a novel that remained puzzling but tilted from foggy puzzling to intriguing puzzling. I finally got what I love so much: a heady novel about life and the world that I couldn’t put down or stop thinking about. I don’t think I’m imagining that Slavnikova simplifies her language as she polishes her characters and messages, resulting in a faster pace and an atmosphere of concreteness and lucidity rather than fuzziness and dreaminess. Even schematic situations and settings – particularly the final scene between Krylov and Tanya – felt direct and crystal-clear. (Sorry!)

All of which is to say that I recommend 2017, despite my initial difficulty engaging with it. Slavnikova’s expedition scenes, carnivalesque episodes, and the portrayals of reality and aloneness made 2017 more than worth the time and effort. 2017 became a book that I can feel better than I can explain, particularly the lonely ending, which I found oddly lovely thanks to its mention of fate.

2017 on Amazon

Pavel Bazhov's Tales from the Urals on Amazon

Image: Rubies in the rough, from GlennPeb, via

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Translator Q&A: Gurevich & Anderson and Ilf & Petrov

Happy New Year! I’m excited to welcome 2010 at the Bookshelf with something unusual: an interview with Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson, who translated Ilf and Petrov’s Золотой телёнок (The Golden Calf) for Open Letter (first page preview). Konstantin and Helen both work as librarians at the University of Rochester, and they are married. I included their notes on their backgrounds below, after the interview.

I enjoyed Konstantin and Helen’s answers to my questions because they sum up so much about translation challenges and techniques, and the enthusiasm translators bring to their work. My only regret is that the interview took place over e-mail rather than in person, over an endless pot of tea and copies of Ilf and Petrov! I added nothing to their answers beyond a few links and a response to Konstantin’s question about Liudmila Ulitskaia’s novel Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator).

How did the Golden Calf translation project come about?

KG: Open Letter’s very first book, Nobody’s Home by Dubravka Ugresic, had plenty of praise for The Golden Calf. So Chad Post, the director of Open Letter, became intrigued and read it. He loved the novel but not the translation.

HA: When Chad moved to Rochester, I met with him to welcome him to campus. He mentioned The Golden Calf and how it needed a new translation. So we submitted a sample chapter to the editorial board, and it went from there.

How do you work together? Do you have a specific division of labor or does it vary depending on individual passages?

KG: I would do the first run of a chapter: not a rough draft, but to the best of my non-native ability, and I’d confer with Helen about whatever I found difficult.

HA: Then I would edit it with the original in hand, then we’d discuss my edits, and go back and forth until we were both satisfied.

KG: There was a lot of reading aloud, a lot of counting syllables – when we were working on the poems, for instance, or the iambic pentameters in Chapter 13, or some of the dialogue. We did try to convey the music of the authors’ sentences.

HA: I often read aloud while editing.

KG: And in the end, she read the whole novel to me in English while I was looking at the original – that was Marian Schwartz’s suggestion, a very good one.

In your translators’ note, you write, “we approached the novel as a work of literature first and foremost, and aimed the translation at a broad English-speaking audience.” I understand this as a desire to make the book readable and (dare I say?) fun for all readers, not just those with a specific interest in Russian literature. Why did you choose this approach? And how did it manifest itself, in practice, while translating The Golden Calf?

KG: Ilf & Petrov are tremendously popular in Russia, yet here, their fame is largely limited to the Russian studies community. We’d like to change that if we can. Тhe Russians love Ilf & Petrov not for their portrayal of the NEP or the Turksib, but for the humor, the spectacular wit, the relentless mocking. The setting may be Soviet, but the themes are universal: the individual against society, the pitfalls of get-rich-quick schemes, the disorientation that comes with achieving one’s goals. So we concentrated on all that and simplified certain Soviet realia in order to avoid copious notes, which Open Letter frowns upon anyway. Basically, we aimed at people who don’t necessarily want to read a Russian book, just a good book.

HA: We’re very pleased that most of the early reviewers focus on the spirit of the novel rather than its setting.

Can you provide an example or two from the translation?

KG: For starters, we - controversially, no doubt - converted all the kilos, puds, versts, and kilometers into pounds and miles. Or take The Budyonny March sung by the Indian philosopher. For most Americans, it’s gibberish, and the irony is lost. The song opens with “We’re the Red cavalry...”, so we made it into The Red Cavalry March.

HA: Or, when the authors say simply “Lunacharsky”, we say “the Education Commissar Lunacharsky”.

Speaking technically, what was the most difficult aspect of translating The Golden Calf into English? Finding equivalents for difficult specialized vocabulary? Rhythm and length of sentences? Conveying the authors' tone? Something else?

HA: Struggling with inadequate Russian-English dictionaries. Avoiding anachronistic vocabulary.

KG: The most mundane things: fabrics, clothing, body motions, pejoratives.

Are you working on a new translation project? If so, what is it?

KG: Not at the moment. This was a labor of love, it won’t be easy to repeat. Otherwise, I’d like to continue with something funny.

HA: Absolutely. I like translating humor.

I can't let you go without asking about your favorite Russian books and writers. Are there any you'd like to recommend to readers?

KG: Besides Ilf & Petrov? Bulgakov, Venedikt Erofeev, Chekhov’s prose, Kozma Prutkov, Sasha Chernyi.

HA: Gogol is my favorite. Of contemporary authors - Akunin and Ulitskaya.

KG: Yes, her Daniel Stein, Translator is incredible. Is anybody translating it?

LHE: Overlook Press purchased U.S. rights to Daniel Stein; as of September 2009, they were looking for a translator.

What question do you wish I had asked?

HA: What did we like best about the experience? I really enjoyed the relentless discussions we had about language and about the novel while working as a team.

KG: For me, it was translating the poems, the word puzzles, some of the names. It felt like playing word games with Ilf & Petrov.

Konstantin Gurevich was born in Moscow, studied English since the age of five, first read Ilf & Petrov at about eleven. Graduated from Moscow State University with a science degree and a technical translator certificate. Did technical translations for a few years. In the 1980s, also taught Russian translation at the University of Texas at Austin, where he obtained a degree in library science. For the last 26 years, he has largely worked in US academic libraries.

Helen Anderson was born and raised in Toronto. She began studying Russian in high school when, in order to attend the same school as her friends, she had to choose a subject that wasn't available at her local school. She continued studying Russian at McGill University where she tried to read the Golden Calf both in Russian and in English, but failed to appreciate it in either language. With degrees in Russian Studies and library science, Helen has worked in academic libraries ever since, building Russian collections, among others.

Previous posts about The Golden Calf: Notable New Translations and Ostap Bender: The (NEP-ERA) Rich Cry, Too

Disclosures: Open Letter provided me with a copy of The Golden Calf plus a virtual introduction to Konstantin and Helen.

The Golden Calf on Amazon