Saturday, February 27, 2010

Notable Newish Translations: A Few Favorites from Life Stories

Ah, short story anthologies! I read the Life Stories collection much like I read Rasskazy last fall: sporadically, out of order, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in English, depending on Internet availability of originals. And I didn’t finish every story. The two books have only one writer in common, Zakhar Prilepin.

Life Stories is more difficult to characterize than Rasskazy, which includes only writers with post-Soviet adulthoods. Life Stories encompasses writers of all ages, many of whom – Pelevin, Makanin, Rubina, and Yuzefovich, among them – are bestsellers and/or winners of large prizes. Plus the content of Life Stories was dictated by a Russian story collection that came out last year: Книга, ради которой объединилилсь писатели, объединить невозможно (roughly: A Book for the Sake of Which Writers Who’d Never Get Together Got Together). Though Life Stories doesn’t translate everything in its Russian predecessor because of copyright, it, like the Russian original, benefits the Vera Hospice Charity Fund and hospice care in Moscow.

Though I enjoyed more in Life Stories than in Rasskazy, I had more of a feeling of discovery reading Rasskazy. I already knew most of the writers in Life Stories, with the exception of Khurgin (see below), but I hadn’t read the majority of the writers in Rasskazy. I especially like finding new writers in anthologies.

I could generalize about which collection has more accomplished or risky or personal or intriguing or important stories, but that’s not fair to you or the stories themselves… both books contain stories that are accomplished, risky, personal, intriguing, and important. And tastes differ. What’s most important is that the two books complement each other, creating a wonderfully compact picture of Russian contemporary fiction that’s awfully fun to read.

There was a lot to like in Life Stories. Here’s what I liked most:

I began and ended Life Stories with Zakhar Prilepin’s “Grandmother, Wasps, Watermelon” (Бабушка, осы, арбуз) – I reread it because it didn’t feel right to comment on a story I read four months ago. The story felt even truer the second time, showing gender and ethnic divides during potato harvest, and then a return to a childhood place. I think Prilepin’s great strengths are his spare writing style and his ability to balance so confidently on the edge of sentimentality and brutality. (Translated by Deborah Hoffman.)

I met one new writer in Life Stories: Alexander Khurgin, whose “Earplugs” (Беруши) tells the story of a woman who “жила красотой мира и окружающей среды обитания” – “lived by the beauty of the world and of her environmental habitat.” Nelya’s life changes when a co-worker suggests she use earplugs to drown out the neighbors’ noise. I was glad to “find” Khurgin: both his narrative voice and his characters are quirky but not irritatingly so. (Translated by Anne O. Fisher.)

Vladimir Sorokin’s “Black Horse with a White Eye” (Черная лошадь с белым глазом) held a nice combination of motifs: the story combines a family scything outing with folk themes when a young girl wanders into the woods to pick berries. She is told not to go far, a signal that something will happen. The story includes bits of accented Russian dialogue, some of which is rendered into English with a rather (too) southern twang. (Translated by Deborah Hoffman.)

Evgenii Grishkovets’s “Serenity” (“Спокойствие”) is typical Grishkovets: an easy-to-read story with insights into human behavior. Though Grishkovets’s stories always feel a little slight to me, this one, like several others, was easy to identify with: its main character stays in the city for the summer, taking it easy while everyone else is away for vacation. Any character who prefers reading over mushroom picking gets some points from me. I’m sure Grishkovets sells so many books because of his relentless позитив (positiveness). (Translated by Paul E. Richardson.)

I already mentioned another favorite, Leonid Yuzefovich’s “Гроза” (“The Storm”), translated by Marian Schwartz, in this post, and I covered Andrei Gelasimov’s story “Жанна” (“Joan”), translated by Alexei Bayer, here.

Disclosure: Russian Information Services provided me with a copy of Life Stories. (I bought another copy of the book as a holiday gift.)

All posts on Life Stories (published by Russian Information Services)

All posts on Rasskazy (published by Tin House)

Life Stories on Amazon

Rasskazy on Amazon

Friday, February 19, 2010

Robert Chandler on Andrei Platonov

This title sure caught my eye: “Andrei Platonov: Russia’s greatest 20th-century prose stylist?” Here’s a link to the article, Daniel Kalder’s interview with translator Robert Chandler.

Chandler, who translated Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit) not once but twice, speaks here, among other things, about the repeat translation, Platonov’s language, and some odd realities connected with The Foundation Pit.

I particularly enjoyed reading what Chandler says about working on the collection Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida:

“I worked on this for several years, did most of the translations myself and revised them many times. I read through the proofs with enjoyment – I was still happy with the choices I had made – but there were only two writers whom I was still able to read with real wonder: Pushkin and Platonov.”

The stories? Pushkin’s Пиковая дама (“The Queen of Spades”) and Platonov’s Возвращение (“The Return”), both of which are personal favorites of mine, too. “The Return,” by the way, is written in fairly simple language, making it a good way for non-native readers of Russian to introduce themselves to Platonov. I wrote a bit about “The Return” in this 2008 Victory Day post.

So is Platonov is Russia’s greatest 20th-century prose stylist? I’m not sure but Chandler’s interview brought back memories of how much I loved the piercing precision of “The Return.” I think it’s time to push Ювенильное море (The Juvenile Sea) to the top of the book pile.

Previous post on The Foundation Pit

Platonov on Amazon

Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida on Amazon

Platonov image from user 53RUStm, via Wikipedia

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Translation Award Finalists & Batuman's The Possessed

Two items for today...

Three Percent’s Best Translated Book Award Finalists

I was happy to see that a Russian book – Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov and published by New York Review Books – was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. For more on the book and Krzhizhanovsky: my previous post or Chad Post’s Three Percent post. (Chad, if you’re reading, the accent goes on the “o”…)

Another finalist, José Manuel Prieto’s Rex, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen, has Russian characters, and the author, who was born in Cuba, lived in Russia for twelve years. Grove, the publisher, sent me a copy of the book last year and, though I have yet to read it, it looks inviting despite my fear of Proustian themes… maybe this is the push I need to finally read it. For more: Chad Post’s Three Percent post on Rex.

Also: Scott Esposito, an award judge, wrote this post for The Millions about literary translation and the shortlist.

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed

Meanwhile, Dwight Garner’s positive review of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them appeared in today’s New York Times. Any book with a title like that plus cover art by Roz Chast scares the hell out of me – what if the book isn’t as good as its cover? – but this one sounds like fun. The Times posted an excerpt, “Babel in California,” here.


Krzhizhanovsky on Amazon
Prieto on Amazon
Batuman's The Possessed on Amazon

Monday, February 15, 2010

Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers

A reader e-mailed last week asking me to recommend contemporary novels for advanced intermediate students of Russian. I’m happy to – I’ve been meaning to write this post for more than a year! (If you don’t read Russian, don’t despair: the majority of the titles on the list below are available in translation.) First, a few reading suggestions that draw on my experience learning to read Russian fiction:

Start small, not with War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. I built my Russian reading stamina, speed, and fluency with short stories and novellas.

Look for familiar vocabulary. Search out books that fit your vocabulary strengths. For example, war novels may be difficult if you don’t know military terminology.

Use free resources. If you’re not sure what fits your reading level or interests, order books through interlibrary loan or look at texts online for a test read. Sites like Журнальный зал and the Moshkov library are great places to start. Many author sites are helpful, too. Update in 2021: This list from XIX век mentions films, books, and TV and radio shows. Everything helps!

Know why you’re reading. Are you reading for enjoyment or to parse sentences and study vocabulary? Or both? Any goal is fine but choose your books accordingly.

Don’t translate as you read! The less you translate in your head, the faster you’ll build your reading skills. Try to figure out unfamiliar words using context, roots, logic, and intuition before you reach for the dictionary. Reread passages as needed.

Read what interests you. Read genres that keep you turning pages in your native language: don’t feel guilty if you choose action or romance novels! I got back into reading Russian six years ago with detective novels, then I branched out.

Quit while you’re ahead. If you’re not enjoying a book, don’t finish it. Sometimes I pick up abandoned books months or years later and love them.

EZier Reader. From now on, I’ll mention the relative difficulty of books in my posts. I’ll mark the easier ones with an “EZier reader” tag.

Now, the list: Here are some stories and shorter novels that felt relatively easy to me when I read them – remember that individual vocabularies and tolerances differ greatly. I’ll keep commentary minimal to fit as many titles as possible. Please e-mail me or add a comment if you have questions. This is only a small list: other suggestions are welcome!

Some of my Russian reading firsts:

  • First short story: Nikolai Karamzin’s Бедная Лиза (Poor Liza)
  • First novella: Lev Tolstoy’s Отец Сергий (Father Sergius) (previous post)
  • First novel (I think): Julia Voznesenskaya’s Женский декамерон (The Women’s Decameron) – 10 women x 10 days = 100 stories. And very manageable reading.

Pre-1917 Classics:

Soviet-Era Fiction:

Contemporary Fiction:

  • Boris Akunin’s Любовница смерти and Любовник смерти (Lover of Death, in female and male versions) (previous post)
  • Vladimir Sorokin’s Лёд (Ice) (previous post) – not a favorite but it read quickly and fairly easily
  • Zakhar Prilepin’s Грех (Sin) (previous post) – Prilepin’s Санькя (San'kia) looks relatively simple in style and language, too.
  • Sergei Lukyanenko’s Ночной дозор (Night Watch) – vampires, conspiracy theory, etc.
  • Yevgeny Grishkovets’s Рубашка (The Shirt) or Спокойствие (“Serenity”) – feel-good and often lite but Grishkovets has a great understanding of psychology that makes it easy to identify with his stories. Unusually easy reading.
  • Andrei Gelasimov’s “Жанна” (“Joan”) (previous post) – Gelasimov’s longer work is generally more difficult.
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Гроза (“The Storm”) (previous post – scroll down)
  • Rasskazy short stories: Difficulty varies, but some of the pieces in the Rasskazy collection aren’t too hard to read. (posts about Rasskazy)
  • Photo: Karamzin monument in Simbirsk (Ulyanovsk), from user Mars02, via Wikipedia. (If I'd been feeling more ambitious today, I'd have searched out and scanned a photo of myself standing in front of this monument...)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Genre and Gender: Platova’s Metro Station Stalingrad & Grekova’s Hairdresser

Gender and genre labels for fiction can be tricky. I remember my irritation when a long-time Russian acquaintance dismissively called Liudmila Ulitskaya’s writing “дамские романы” (“women’s novels”). I acknowledged that some of Ulitskaya’s work – Sonechka, for example – probably appeals more to women, but it didn’t interest him much that she’d won the Big Book and Russian Booker prizes.

Now that we’ve established that gender-based genre labels make me nervous, I want to use one: I think Viktoriya Platova’s Stalingrad, станция метро (Metro Station Stalingrad) is a Russian chick lit novel, albeit with strong coming-of-age motifs. As you’ll find out below, at least one Russian male reviewer recommended Stalingrad...

For reference, here are some snippets from a discussion of chick lit at “mainly written by women for women,” “a confiding, personal tone,” and covering “usual life issues, such as love, marriage, dating, relationships, friendships, roommates, corporate environments, weight issues, addiction, and much more.” Topics like grieving may appear in chick lit, but humor is mentioned as “a strong point,” too.

So. At twenty, Platova’s heroine, Elizaveta, is a youngish chick lit character who is concerned about her weight – she never forgets being called a толстая жаба (fat toad), and that point is always emphasized with bold. Her lack of friends contributes to self-esteem problems. Elizaveta and her German-born, accordion-playing father, whom she calls Karlusha, adore each other but Elizaveta’s high-flying mother rejects her. Elizaveta wants to look like Catherine Zeta-Jones and she plots how to meet her favorite singer.

I almost abandoned the book about a third in, but when I picked it up a couple months later for treadmill reading, I found myself enjoying some passages. Though Stalingrad almost drowns in its own cuteness, quirkiness, wordiness, and pop culture references, Elizaveta’s career choice -- caring for elderly and terminally ill people -- saves the novel. Her friendship with an AIDS patient is the highlight of the book, and his inevitable death scene was very touching. I can’t say I’d want to read lots more books like it but I give Platova lots of credit for writing a book that accentuates heart, soul, and позитив, the positive in life. [Edit: I do want to try the Booker finalist Берег (The Shore), written by another Vika Platova. (see comment from Alex, below)]

After Stalingrad, I walked with Irina Grekova’s 65-page Дамский мастер, translated into English as The LadiesHairdresser. The novella focuses on a female professor’s friendship with her young, male hairdresser. Grekova’s conversational first-person narrator covers some of the “usual life issues” listed by the chick lit site, but Hairdresser touches enough on Soviet realities that it feels more like thaw literature.

Men, please understand: finding and keeping a good hairdresser can be a special challenge for women. Having just lost my own haircutter, I particularly enjoyed looking in on Mar’ya Vladimirovna’s rather maternal relationship with the orphaned Vitalii, feeling happy that she finds a good “master” to style her hair but also knowing that something would interfere. I was surprised – though I shouldn’t have been, given that Hairdresser is dated 1962 – when bureaucracy, not egos or dissatisfaction, were the cause.

Though I don’t think The Hairdresser holds together as well as Grekova’s Вдовий пароход (The Ship of Widows) (previous post), it’s still an interesting and almost voyeuristic piece of psychological fiction. The language is fairly simple, making it a good way for advanced students of Russian, both male and female, to read fiction that combines personal concerns, like, yes, the importance of hair to an intelligent woman, with painfully Soviet ways of life.

Getting back to genre, gender, and that review: I should add that TimeOut Moscow’s male reviewer of Stalingrad called the book “женский роман” or even “девичий роман” – a novel for women or girls. But he adds that older women and even men shouldn’t be ashamed to read it. That reminded me of an American friend who lived in Moscow when I did: he loved reading Russian Cosmo because it improved his understanding of Russian and women.

Photo of Stalingrad Metro station, Paris, from Angryxpeh, via Wikipedia Commons