Monday, May 31, 2010

Lots of News from Book Expo America

I’m still getting caught up on my sleep after three days in New York for Book Expo America and the Book Blogger Convention. Fortunately, this is a good kind of tired, from long talks with people who care about books, including Russian fiction. As a matter of full disclosure, I should note that I spoke with many publishers about two things: their upcoming titles (more on that at the end) and their potential interest in my translation projects.

The Biggest News. I enjoyed my visits to the first-ever Books from Russia booth, organized by the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications together with Academia Rossica. Russian books will receive lots of attention over the next two years: Russia will be the market focus at the London Book Fair in 2011 and then at BEA in 2012. I think I need to build a bigger travel budget!

Also of interest: Academia Rossica publishes a journal, Rossica, which calls itself an “international review of Russian culture.” Issue 18 includes translated excerpts of fiction by writers such as Oleg Zaionchkovsky (whom I’m still enjoying), Aleksei Ivanov, Dina Rubina, and Aleksandr Ilichevsky. Issue 19 has extracts of novels by Dmitry Bykov, Vladimir Makanin, and Mikhail Shishkin. There’s much more in each journal; tables of contents are here. (AR gave me copies of both journals plus Dmitry Bykov’s book Был ли Горький? (I’ll call it Did Gorky Exist?).)

Other translation news, listed in alphabetical order by publisher, includes:

Moscow Noir, from Akashic Books, will be available in wide release this summer. Most of Akashic’s Noir series books contain commissioned stories, so there is currently no Russian version of the collection.

This isn’t news but it makes me happy: Dalkey Archive Press loves Viktor Shklovsky, and their list contains seven Shklovsky titles. They gave me a copy of Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, translated by Shushan Avagyan; Dalkey’s list also includes Зоо, или Письма не о любви (Zoo, or Letters Not about Love), translated by Richard Sheldon… I’m feeling an even stronger urge to finally read it. Dalkey’s Russian list is online here.

Thanks to writer Ron Hogan for mentioning that Knopf will release Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (previous post) in fall 2010.

New York Review Books has a Vasily Grossman book, The Road, on its calendar for fall 2010. This eclectic compilation includes stories, letters, and “The Hell of Treblinka.” Translators are Robert Chandler, Olga Mukovnikova, and Elizabeth Chandler.

Translator Andrew Bromfield told me he’s been translating the last of Vladimir Voinovich’s Chonkin books for Northwestern University Press; the book will be released in 2011. Andrew’s translation of Andrei Rubanov’s Сажайте, и вырастет (Do Time, Get Time), a National Bestseller finalist, is listed on Amazon as available in the US from Old Street Publishing… starting tomorrow.

The Overlook Press, which recently published Marian Schwartz’s translation of Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (previous post), will release a translation of Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) (previous post) during winter 2010-2011. Overlook was also excited about the U.S. edition of Sam Garretts English translation of Dutch author Frank Westerman’s book Ingenieurs van de ziel (Engineers of the Soul), which focuses on Soviet-era writers and ideology. (A fresh review.) A reminder: Ardis Publishing now resides at Overlook, too, where translated titles include some favorites, from Sologubs Petty Demon (previous post) to Vladimir Makanin’s Escape Hatch and The Long Road (previous post).

Technically speaking, Android Karenina, a joint effort from Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters, isn’t a translated book but it’s perfect for my rather mashed up state of mind. Quirk Books certainly chose the right novel for a steampunk mashup. (BTW, steampunk is a Russian word, too: стимпанк.) AK has already generated some attention: Russian TV came to BEA to visit Quirk.

Related Non-Translations. At 560 pages, Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, from FSG, sure must expand on Frazier’s New Yorker pieces about a Russian road trip; it comes out in October. Adrienne Sharp’s The True Memoirs of Little K, a historical novel based on fact, narrated by a former ballerina and lover of the czar, is scheduled for November. Harper Collins also has a ballet-related historical novel coming out this fall (September): Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter.

I’ll be happy for comments about errors, omissions, or ideas… there was so much going on that it was impossible to see everyone I wanted to see.

And Another Blog on the Way. Now that I’m working more on literary translation, I’m feeling an urge to read more fiction in English: I know I’m missing out on lots of good books, writers, connections, and, yes, vocabulary. Starting a new blog seems like the best (or only?) way to keep discipline so I gathered a nice stack of books at BEA to get myself going. The pile is heavy on translations and books from small publishing houses but there’s lots of variety.

My Russian reading and blogging habits won’t change much but I’ll make a quick mention of the new blog here when it goes live in June. One sure change: I’ll link from blog to blog when I find common themes and techniques in books. After all, it was Mikhail Elizarov’s Мультики (‘Toons) that convinced me I needed to (re)broaden my reading after I recognized shadows of A Clockwork Orange in ‘Toons

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Two Theater Novels: Bulgakov & Akunin

Reading, Act I: Mikhail Bulgakov’s short, unfinished novel Театральный роман: Записки покойника (known in English by such titles as A Dead Man’s Memoir: A Theatrical Novel and Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel)

Reading, Act II: Boris Akunin’s too-long but too-tidy novel Весь мир театр (literally All the World’s a Theater or All the World’s a Stage)

My reaction: Polite, restrained applause, an indifferent shrug, and a quick exit.

I enjoy a good theater production from time to time but I realized after these two books that I’m not wild enough about the stage – despite having helped present Russian theater here in Portland, Maine, back in the early ‘90s – to read fiction about it. It doesn’t help that I don’t think either of these books is its author’s best… I knew the Bulgakov might be an unsatisfying unfinished novel. (Check!) And I suspected the Akunin might be an unsatisfying potboiler. (Check!) So.

A Theatrical Novel fictionalizes Bulgakov’s experiences working with the Moscow Art Theater (МХАТ) but I’ll focus on summarizing my impressions of the novel rather than decoding “кто есть who” (who’s who). Wikipedia has a full Russian-language plot summary and list of prototypes for characters here. (Google Translate transliterates the list of characters and renders the entry’s narrative into something moderately readable.)

For me, the best fun of A Theatrical Novel was reading about the reactions of the narrator, an unknown writer who admits he’s written a lousy novel, to a director’s demands for revisions to the stage adaptation of the novel: a dagger, for example, must replace a gun. I also thoroughly enjoyed the humor, dialogue, outlandish names (e.g. Poliksena Toropetskaya), and, yes, theatrical behavior in many of the set pieces. Despite the combination of some good laughs and Bulgakov’s scathing portrayal of censorship and theater figures, though, A Theatrical Novel felt uneven and unfinished enough that it left me indifferent. I suspect theater buffs will appreciate its characterizations and situations more than I did.

Alas, Akunin’s book was even more disappointing, despite my low expectations: I think only the first nine Fandorin detective novels are readable. All the World’s a Theater finds Erast Petrovich Fandorin in his fifties in 1911; Petr Stolypin has just been shot in, yes, a theater. Fandorin is soon to go gaga over an actress, Eliza, whom he meets through Olga Knipper. Knipper thinks Eliza, who is much younger than Fandorin, needs Fandorin’s help. Fandorin, ever the Renaissance man, obliges, turning dramaturge to write a play with parts for Eliza and himself and then, of course, investigating when corpses start appearing.

What’s most unfortunate about All the World’s a Theater is that it lacks the verve and narrative drive of the initial Fandorin books: the book feels weighted down with Fandorin’s romantic thoughts and Akunin’s clichéd attempts at contrasting and overlapping art/theater with life/reality. (Like Bulgakov, Akunin has also had dealings with adaptations.) The “Бедная Лиза” (“Poor Liza”) connection of the very first Fandorin novel is made yawningly obvious this time, and Fandorin’s play is included in the book. I’ll confess: I skipped it. I plodded through the pages as I plodded through the miles on the treadmill but the book didn’t made the walk feel much shorter. I guess I hadn’t missed Fandorin that much.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: A Theatrical Novel might have been a bit more difficult than All The World's a Theater, for 2.5/5 and 2.0/5 respectively.

Next up: Мультики (Toons), Mikhail Elizarov’s rather odd follow-up to the Booker-winning Библиотекарь (The Librarian) (previous post)… I think my reading slump is ending, though: I’m loving Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Счастье возможно: роман нашего времени (Happiness Is Possible: A Novel of Our Time).

Photo: weatherbox, via

Various versions of A Theatrical Novel on Amazon

Boris Akunin on Amazon

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Big Book’s Long 2010 Short List &tc.

2010 Big Book Finalists. The Big Book award people issued their short-but-long list of 14 finalists today. The jury has plenty of time to read: the winners won’t be named until November.

The finalists are:

I have Zaionchkovskii’s book on my shelf and am looking forward to reading it soon – somehow, it looks very inviting. Several of these books appear to have been published only in journal form thus far. Speaking of “thick” journals, which are the first to publish so much of Russia’s best literary fiction, I was excited to see several shelves of journals at the Seattle Public Library when I visited last weekend.

Edit: The Комсомольская правда Web site has brief summaries of each writer’s bio plus full texts of each book online. You can get started here.

A New Blog. And a bit of news from Washington State: Jamie Olson, who translates Russian poetry into English and teaches in the English Department at Saint Martin’s University, started a blog about Russian poetry, The Flaxen Wave.

Book Expo America. After missing out on the London Book Fair I decided to go to Book Expo America next week. My agenda will include learning more about Akashic’s short story collection Moscow Noir, due out this summer, and getting a progress report from Overlook on the English translation of Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Translator (previous post).

Coming Up. I’m a little behind in writing about books I’ve read… I’ll be posting soon about Mikhail Bulgakov’s Театральный роман (known in English as Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel and A Dead Man’s Memoir: A Theatrical Novel) plus Boris Akunin’s Весь мир театр (All the World’s a Theater/Stage). I didn’t love either one, but I finished them, unlike Vladimir Makanin’s Иsпуг (Fear or Fright).

Sunday, May 9, 2010

War Stories for Victory Day: Another Grekova Novella & a Sorokin Short Story

With so many news articles about this year’s Victory Day parade in Moscow, I’ve been thinking a lot about World War 2 and Russian fiction related to the war. I hadn’t realized until this week how many novels with war themes I’ve read in the last several years. I wrote a Victory Day post two years ago (here) and will add to my list of favorites at the end of this entry.

I just finished reading two pieces about the war: Irina Grekova’s 1969 novella Маленький Гарусов (Little Garusov) and Vladimir Sorokin’s short story “Кисет” (“The Tobacco Pouch”), from a collection dated 1979-1984. Little Garusov tells the story of a boy orphaned during the war who never quite grows, physically or emotionally. Garusov has a similar feel to the two other Grekova novellas (here and here) that I’ve read: clear, simple language, straightforward narrative, and a combination of light and heavy details that make the piece feel like life.

Though I agree with Helena Goscilo’s criticism (in this detailed introduction to Cathy Porter’s translation of Grekova’s Вдовий пароход (The Ship of Widows)) that Garusov meanders, I still found it an interesting portrait of the short- and long-term effects of the war on children. As a small child in wartime, Garusov often acts like an adult: he catches a crow and brings it to his mother for soup then, later, after she disappears and he’s sent to an orphanage that’s evacuated for the duration, he articulately convinces authorities to send him and his orphanage mates back to Leningrad. He wants to find his mother.

As an adult, Garusov marries and divorces, falls for “other” women, often feeling pity for them and lending money he doesn’t have. He can’t find happiness. He doesn’t know when he was born. His life is pretty empty. And sad. Garusov reminded me a lot of Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Искренне ваш Шурик (Sincerely Yours, Shurik), also about a youngish man who can’t quite seem to find his own life. Shurik was my favorite Ulitskaya novel until I read her Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) (previous post), another book with World War 2 themes.

Today I read Vladimir Sorokin’s “Tobacco Pouch” thanks to a recommendation from readers Languagehat and Alexander/Sashura; Sashura mentioned the story in a comment to this Languagehat post about Elif Batuman’s The Possessed. “The Tobacco Pouch” begins with a narrator, who loves the Russian forest, going to wait for sunrise in the woods. I’ve only read a bit of Sorokin – Лёд (Ice) (previous post) and a few stories, including “Чёрная лошадь с белым глазом” (“Black Horse with a White Eye”) (mentioned here) – but the idyllic, even kitschy, start of “Tobacco Pouch” made me wonder what sinister twist awaited in the woods.

I didn’t have to wait long: several pages in, a veteran with a chest full of medals appears. He’s out collecting plants and he carries a tobacco pouch given to him by a woman when he was a soldier. Then comes the twist: the sunrise lover asks the veteran to tell about the tobacco pouch, and the veteran’s speech eventually self-destructs (I borrowed that word from a small chunk of this interesting Russian essay about Sorokin) as he tells about his life after Victory Day in Berlin. “The Tobacco Pouch” reminded me a little of Gogol’s “Записки сумашедшего” (“Diary of a Madman”), where the narrator loses more and more of his mind as the story progresses.

One especially interesting aspect of the story: Sashura mentioned “Кисет” in a comment on an earlier Languagehat post, calling lily of the valley (ландыш), which the veteran gathers, a clue to the story’s meaning. Lily of the valley is the plant in the online version of the story but in my book, the veteran collects подснежники, snowdrops. The discrepancy got me Googling, and I found that both plants contain compounds used to improve memory: galantamine, in snowdrops, is used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, and lily of the valley, according to Wikipedia, contains of compounds for memory and the heart. [Edit: Both plants are also considered poisonous.] I’m glad Sashura mentioned the plants. Though I was suspicious enough to circle the word подснежники as I read, I didn’t link it to the linguistic breakdown and fragmented memories. “The Tobacco Pouch” didn’t become an instant favorite and I’m still mulling it over but it’s an interesting take on memory and, I think, the odd things that happen when we wander into literal, metaphorical, historical, and folkloric forests.

As for recommendations… Beyond the pieces I mentioned in my 2008 Victory Day post, I particularly recommend these books with World War 2-related themes:

Books about the war on my “to read” shelf include:

I’d love to hear recommendations for other war-related books or stories.