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 ozon.ru 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 pro-books.ru 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 sxc.hu

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.