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.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Riding The Devil’s Wheel

Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel) is a thickly populated and expertly constructed novel about perestroika-era heroin addicts and corrupt cops in Tbilisi, Georgia. Though the action takes place over a relatively short period, beginning on exactly August 25, 1987, Gigolashvili fills his book with so many storylines and vivid details that it becomes a voyeuristic epic about addiction to and withdrawal from drugs and a way of life. The Devil’s Wheel is one of my favorite types of books: an exceptionally readable novel that combines suspense, social commentary, lifelike characters, and Russian literary tradition.

Sure, The Devil’s Wheel sounds like yet another piece of чернуха (essentially: crushingly depressing naturalism) but Gigolashvili blends in comic relief and absurdity that, paradoxically, make the book feel more realistic. And some of his characters are down-and-out practitioners of the philosophy that hope dies last. Though I – and probably even they – didn’t quite believe they could become honest businessmen, quit crime, or kick heroin, I closed the book with a peculiar combination of lack of faith in their resolve, relief nobody else (even the ones that were up to no good) had died, and a hope that perhaps someone’s decision would stick. (Yes, I’ve been called “Pollyanna” more than once.)

I think my feelings about the book are complex because Gigolashvili creates such complex, human characters: he develops believable people by gradually revealing, in concrete terms, their actions, hopes, ambiguities, individual demons, and intertwined fates. With dozens of characters flitting in and out, The Devil’s Wheel often reminded me of War and Peace. The character who is physically the largest, for example, spoke little over several appearances in the first half of the book, disappeared for hundreds of pages, then reappeared just as I began to wonder where he was.

Some characters, like recidivists Satan(a) and his friend, Nugzar, a “thief in law,” commit reprehensible acts. They’re violent users but they eventually try to change their lives… albeit mostly through change of scenery to a freer place (Amsterdam, no less!) and, of course, more crime. Other characters seem more mundane – an artist, a bureaucrat, a journalist – but nearly everyone has distinguishing histories and tics for identification. Though the majority of Gigolashvili’s primary characters are male, his female characters are memorable, too: a grandmother whose grandson tricks her into buying drugs, the girlfriend of an addict, a schoolgirl, and an Asian prostitute in Amsterdam.

Addiction and withdrawal connect nearly everyone, with drugs – primarily variations on opium, but there is also pot and hashish – serving as a metaphor for the attachment to and loss of certain pre-Gorbachev Soviet comforts, many of dubious value. Addicts bemoan the loss of cheap drugs. Bribers complain it’s no longer clear whom or how to pay. The cops gripe, too, with the major quoting Stalin and high prices to free criminals. Much of the darkness is based in existential questions – for one thing, opium is a religion for those who plan squalid days around cooking and shooting up drugs – and Gigolashvili visits Dostoevskian questions about God and what happens when everything’s permitted.

After spending nearly 800 pages witnessing nonstop action, emotional and physical pain, arrests, and drug use, I felt relief at the end when Gigolashvili neatly, but not too neatly, drew his book back to its starting point, just as a Ferris wheel – the “devil’s wheel” of the title – picks up and discharges passengers on the same spot of ground. The Devil’s Wheel begins and ends with heavy nights and almost identical paragraphs… that after Gigolashvili has dragged his characters and readers through many circles of existence resembling Hell, even an actual conflagration. Still, after all those events that change every life in the book, I was left with the old and odd feeling that the more things change, the more they stay the same. A feeling that is at once a little comforting, very unsettling, and thoroughly fitting.

Summary: Very highly recommended, one of the highlights of this year’s reading. I didn’t want the book to end. I appreciated Gigolashvili’s clean writing style and ability to connect subplots, characters, deeper meaning, and extremely uncomfortable material… particularly after the good-natured but disappointing muddle of Kliuev’s Something Else for You (previous post) and Pavlov’s very heavy Asystole (previous post).

Language level for non-native readers of Russian: I didn’t think The Devil’s Wheel was especially difficult because I’ve read other books with drugs, swearing, and criminal vocabulary. Without that knowledge, though, many passages might be quite difficult, 3.5 or 4/5.

Up next: Margarita Khemlin’s Клоцвог (Klotsvog), a novel about a beautiful and manipulative woman who seems to be a serial marrier. I’m about half-way through and see that Khemlin is again – as she did with the long stories I read last year (previous post) – transforming distinctively simple language and material into something bigger.

Opium poppy illustration, received via Wikipedia, is originally from: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yasnaya Polyana Award Short List

Six finalists for Yasnaya Polyana’s “21st Century” award were announced on September 9, Lev Tolstoy’s birthday. The books sound like a varied bunch:

Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Перс (The Persian), 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. (I’ll be reading this one soon.)

Boris Klimychev’s Треугольное письмо (most likely The Triangular Letter), a novel in stories that’s available online: начало окончание

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. A review here.

Oleg Pavlov’s complex novel Асистолия (Asystole), which I wrote about here.

Mikhail Tarkovskii’s Замороженное время (Frozen Time), stories about people living on the Yenisei River. (In case you’re wondering about his name… Yes, Tarkovskii is the grandson of poet Arsenii Tarkovskii, whose poetry I have enjoyed, and a nephew of director Andrei Tarkovskii. His father is film director Aleksandr Gordon.)

Elena Takho-Godi’s У мирного порога моего (How about: At My Quiet Doorstep), another collection of short stories, available online here.

The Yasnaya Polyana awards recognize works with humanistic and moral ideals. The award was co-founded in 2003 by the Yasnaya Polyana Museum and Samsung Electronics. The prize got much richer this year, according to the 21st Century winner will receive 750,000 rubles, and the winner of the Contemporary Classic award will receive 900,000 rubles. Winners will be announced in October.

Up next: I had a very slow reading week thanks to home repairs and lots of allergies (largely caused by afore-mentioned home repairs) so haven’t quite finished The Devil’s Wheel. I suspect I also started slowing the pace, subconsciously, at around page 650 because I’ve enjoyed the book so much that I don’t want to finish it... I’ll be back soon with more.

Photo credit: SiefkinDR, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Labor Day Weekend News Potpourri

I’ve been hoarding Russian literary news for today, knowing I’d be in the middle of Mikhail Gigolashvili’s 800-page Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel). I admit: despite positive reviews and liking the first chapters I’d read (in PDF) on the Ad Marginem site, I’d had doubts about spending so many pages and days reading about drug addicts in Tbilisi. But The Devil’s Wheel is a great antidote to Kliuev’s Something Else for You (previous post) and Pavlov’s Asystole (previous post). Gigolashvili can tell a story, and he’s unsparing in his depiction of the perestroika era. The Devil’s Wheel is graphic, brutal, sensitive, funny, and impossible to put down. And now the news…

Award news:

Liudmila Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award, in the collection category. (news item) (hurray, it’s back!) reported that Vladimir Sorokin won the Gorky Prize for Лёд (Ice). The other nominees for the writer award were Boris Akunin for Декоратор (The Decorator) and Mikhail Shishkin for Венерин волос (Maidenhair). About the nominees: I didn’t much like Ice, which has been translated by Jamey Gambrell, but I can’t forget it; I’m planning to read the next book in the trilogy (Путь бро, known in English as Bro) soon. The Decorator is one of my favorite of Akunin’s Fandorin novel(la)s; it’s one of the pieces in the book known in English as Special Assignments, translated by Andrew Bromfield. As for Shishkin, I have a couple of his books on the shelf…

Translation news:

Speaking of Shishkin’s Maidenhair: Open Letter’s fall catalogue lists it as “forthcoming.”

Russian Life Books released Nina Murray’s translation of Petr Aleshkovskii’s Рыба. История одной миграции (Fish: A History of One Migration) a few days ago. Fish wasn’t a favorite when I read it last year – I didn’t think it lived up to its tremendous potential (previous post) – but it does have some good material, particularly in depicting personal and social trauma.

Miscellaneous news:

A Sergei Dovlatov museum is scheduled to open on September 3, 2011, Dovlatov’s birthday, in Berezino, a village in the Pskov oblast’ where Dovlatov lived in 1977. The announcement came on August 24, 2010, the twentieth anniversary of Dovlatov’s death. (Russian news item) Dovlatov wrote about the house in Заповедник (The Reserve). I read The Reserve and thought it was uneven, though many of the passages about working at the nearby Pushkin museum are hilarious. My favorite Dovlatov, so far, is Компромисс (The Compromise) (previous post), available in Anne Frydman’s translation.

Today’s post on my Other Bookshelf blog is about Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter, a novel about ballet, jewelry, poets, and Stalin-era wariness that moves between Soviet Moscow and contemporary Boston. Publisher Harper Collins calls it a “page-turner.” I don’t have especially strong positive or negative feelings about Russian Winter, but I do think its combination of heavy and light make it a good book for introducing readers to Russian themes. Most recommended to people interested in ballet and antique jewelry auctions. (Harper Collins sent a review copy of Russian Winter at my request.)

Up next: The afore-mentioned Devil’s Wheel.

Photo credit: Drabkin, via Wikipedia. (Sergei Dovlatov's grave at Mount Hebron Cemetery, Queens, New York.)