Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year & Reading Highlights from 2011

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I hope 2012 bring you plenty of fun and absorbing Russian books to read, no matter what language you read in. Before we finish with 2011, I thought I’d write up a quick list of books I particularly enjoyed during the year:

Favorite book. I can’t decide on just one favorite, so I’ll name two, listing them alphabetically by author surname: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s The Interpreter (previous post) and Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair (previous post). Both books felt especially exuberant, with lively voices and structures, and subject matter that’s difficult to summarize. I think this must have been my year for books of this type: I also loved Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, which I read in Ross Benjamin’s German-to-English translation (post on my other blog).

Favorite newer release. I didn’t do so well with books released during late 2010 or 2011—an unusually high number of the year’s Big Book finalists were clunkers for me—but I did enjoy Iurii Buida’s Blue Blood (previous post) once I got past the first 50 pages and got used to Buida’s patterns. The book may be too quirky or collage-like (to borrow from Alexander Anichkin’s comment) for some readers but something (?) managed to win me over.

Favorite “what’s old is new” work. Andrei Platonov’s Juvenile Sea, sometimes Sea of Youth, (previous post) still rings in my mind… it’s probably those pumpkin sleeping pods. I think it’s safe to say that Platonov is my favorite writer who must be read slowly; I seem to read every paragraph at least twice. I love how Platonov arranges his words.

Favorite discovery. A few of Fazil’ Iskander’s Chik stories (previous post) and a novella (previous post) were enough to give me a new favorite writer whose stories I want to ration and read over time. I particularly love Iskander’s gentle humor and his ability to portray the everyday injustices of Soviet life.

Favorite work of nonfiction. I only read a few books of nonfiction this year but Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Human Soul: The Grandiose Propaganda of Stalin’s Russia (previous post), translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, was my kind of book, thanks to its combination of socialist realism and irrigation in the Soviet Union.

Travel. Book-related travel was a treat, a big highlight of 2011: I met a lot of you at the London Book Fair, BookExpo America, and the American Literary Translators Association Conference. I hope to see and meet more of you in 2012, particularly given the market focus on Russia at BookExpo America—I’ve already been excited about BEA 2012 for over a year! I’m sure I’ll be writing more about BEA when details are available.

What’s next? This isn’t book news, but I’m also excited about 2012 because I’ll be teaching first-year Russian at Bowdoin College next semester. I particularly love teaching first-year courses so am looking forward to getting started. As for reading, I don’t make resolutions but I am planning on at least one geographically based book sequence, beginning with St. Petersburg: some of Gogol’s Petersburg stories, Bely’s Petersburg, and perhaps Bykov’s Ostromov. I’m already thinking that a Moscow sequence might be fun for the second half of the year. I still have a clump of Shklovsky books on the shelf, too, just waiting for a mini-marathon.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for your visits, comments, book recommendations, and e-mail messages. It’s always fun to hear from you! I wish everyone lots of enjoyable reading in 2012… Happy new year!

Disclosures: The usual. Previous posts that I have referenced in this post contain further disclosure information about individual books and relationships.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Benigsen’s Rayad and Krzhizhanovsky’s Letter Killers

My last two book commentaries for the year—about Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Rayad) and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club)—feel all too typical of my reading in 2011, a year when I abandoned many books and finished others without particular enthusiasm. In this case, I finished both books but neither gave me quite the kick I might have hoped for…

Rayad, a novel about contemporary Moscow, borrows heavily from the detective genre: Benigsen begins with the murder of a man in a moviehouse then shows us an investigation carried out by a recent widower, Kostya. Kostya and his young daughter go to live in a clean, orderly, and slightly creepy all-Russian neighborhood in Moscow, where Kostya quickly meets Gremlin, the alleged perpetrator, a nationalist. Benigsen works in a series of faux historical letters, including one from V.I. Lenin himself, about Rayads, an invented nomadic tribe who once lived in Kostya’s new neighborhood. Of course corruption makes an appearance, too.

Rayad is competently composed and constructed, and it addresses timely sociocultural and sociopolitical issues, but I think Benigsen missed a chance to write a truly important book, a book that makes readers feel deeply uncomfortable. Though there’s a nasty scene on a train with Gremlin and his gang, it’s physical violence and we don’t know the victim. To my mind, the problem with Rayad is that Benigsen doesn’t go nearly far enough in exploring the psychology of nationalism in a way that would encourage readers to (re)examine their own beliefs.

Worse, Rayad’s characters and plot developments feel formulaic. Kostya’s family is half military and half intelligentsia, his new neighbor has problems because he’s not pure Russian, a neighborhood woman resembles Kostya’s dead wife, and so on. The term “Rayad” is particularly obvious because it sounds like an amalgam of the words for heaven and hell. By contrast, Benigsen’s ГенАцид (GenAcide) (previous post) is funnier, sharper, and more literary. Rayad reminded me of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, where Perrotta also failed this picky reader by backing away from an opportunity to write an important book; The Leftovers, too, lacked enough narrative tension and social spark to inspire introspection, rendering it mediocre “stuff.”

Nearly a century earlier, Krzhizhanovsky put literary tropes to use in The Letter Killers Club, a novella of sorts. Krzhizhanovsky frames five stories, setting them up by describing an apartment and the host of a club where members, each known by a monosyllabic nickname, recite stories from memory. I don’t want to spill many details but I’ll say that the leader, a writer, composed his books after having to sell all his books; he imagined his books and the letters on the pages, rearranging them to occupy emptiness. He says writers are “professional word tamers” (“профессиональные дрессировщики слов). (The English phrase is from Joanne Turnbull’s translation, which you can look inside on Amazon.)

I think my biggest difficulty with The Letter Killers Club is that I, a bit like the narrator, who’s an invited guest at the meetings, was more interested in buttonholing club members for a chat than in listening to their stories. More frustrating, the first tale, a playlet with characters from Hamlet and the eternal question and implications of “to be or not to be,” interested me far more than the remaining four, despite the appearance of my beloved carnival themes and an interesting science fiction take on mind control. Some of the stories just felt too long.

I think the most intriguing aspect of The Letter Killers Club stems from the opening scene, where Hermann Ebbinghaus is referred to as “мнемолог,” a mnemologist. The story and my book’s endnotes also mention Ebbinghaus’s use of “бессмысленные слоги” (“nonsense syllables”) in his research; Krzhizhanovsky’s club’s host uses Ebbinghaus’s term to refer to club members’ nicknames. Ebbinghaus used nonsense syllables in his research to remove associations with real words.

Of course associations develop, both in memory research and in the story: storytellers occasionally even borrow fellow club members’ nicknames for their characters, just as they, like their leader, borrow and reshuffle letters, syllables, and motifs from world languages and literatures. All the club’s storytelling (well, most of, but I won’t go into that) is from memory, playing on mnemonics; I have to think archetypes must have been helpful devices, too. (Festival of the Ass, anyone?) The Letter Killers Club gave my addled brain lots to think about last week when I had a nasty cold: my dreamy, floaty head probably got me further than a clear head could have.

I still have hundreds more pages to try in my collection of Krzhizhanovsky stories and novellas; despite the disappointment of The Letter Killers Club, I’m looking forward to reading more. I have the feeling (or at least the hope!) Krzhizhanovsky may be the kind of writer whose work takes time and patience, that ideas may seep from story to story, eventually accumulating in a way that begins to form a world or worldview. Joanne Turnbull’s translation of The Letter Killers Club, with an introduction by Caryl Emerson, is a recent release from New York Review Books.

P.S. Here are links to some pieces, most with more enthusiastic opinions than mine, that contain far more details about Krzhizhanovsky and The Letter Killers Club. Just watch out for all those details: I think the unexpectedness of the novella is one of its real virtues, so I was glad I knew almost nothing about it when I read.

Up Next: Favorites from 2011. And Dmitrii Dobrodeev’s Большая svoboda Ивана Д. (Ivan D.’s Big Liberty). And then a reading extravaganza—inspired by peculiarities of Petersburg and some of my translation work—is on the way. Why, I thought, just reread Bely’s Petersburg? I’m planning to start with Gogol’s Petersburg tales (or a selection of said tales, I’m not sure), move on to Petersburg, and then finish with something contemporary, probably Dmitrii Bykov’s Ostromov.

Disclosures: The usual. I received a copy of Rayad at the London Book Fair from organizers of the Russia pavilion. Thank you! I know New York Review Books from discussions of translation at book fairs. One other thing: that Amazon link is my affiliate link.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Trip Notes: Literary Translator Conference

It took me a few weeks to get caught up on my sleep and work (ouch!) after traveling to Kansas City for the American Literary Translators Association conference the week before Thanksgiving… here, at last, are a few conference highlights:

I don’t often write about films but want to be sure to recommend Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary (Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten) The Woman With the 5 Elephants to anyone interested in literary translation, Dostoevsky, and/or moral ambiguity. Jendreyko profiles Svetlana Geier, who left Ukraine for Germany during World War 2; the five elephants of the title are five of Dostoevsky’s long novels that Geier translated.

Jendreyko makes beautiful use of silence in the film, showing us Geier’s translation process—which includes dictating translations to a woman at a manual typewriter and, later, taking notes on the typewritten copy as she listens to comments and criticisms from a crustily endearing musician friend (see photo)—as well as her food shopping, cooking, and first trip to Ukraine in decades. Jendreyko’s film tells us that Geier’s father was a political prisoner and that Geier’s knowledge of German helped her leave the Soviet Union, but he doesn’t push her, at least on camera, to explain much about how she managed to go to Germany. Instead he cuts in scenes from a silent Crime and Punishment (Robert Wiene’s Raskolnikow, I believe), along with Geier’s comments on Dostoevsky and Raskol’nikov.

Though I’d dreaded the 9.30 p.m. screening time after a long day at the conference, The Woman With the 5 Elephants was so oddly suspenseful and puzzling that it kept me fully alert, awake, and even enthralled. I’m not sure what left the strongest impression on me—Geier’s occasional mischievous looks into the camera, uncertainty about her past, the silences, or Geier’s wonderfully old-fashioned translation techniques—but the film was well worth staying up to watch.

My personal highlights of the conference were reading from one of my works in progress, Konstantin Vaginov’s novella Бамбочада (Bambocciade) and reciting, from memory (eek!), Arsenii Tarkovskii’s brief poem “Портрет” (“Portrait”), in the original and in my own translation during the “Declamación” program. I’ve always thought of myself as a horrible memorizer but I can’t tell you how glad I am that Marian Schwartz urged me to take part. Declamacion was as fun as promised, and I particularly enjoyed hearing poems—e.g. Chinese arias—sung. I’m already thinking ahead to next year so I can prepare a poem that’s a little longer. There’s a lot to be said for memorizing a poem and reciting it in public.

A few other things to mention… Poet and translator Peter Golub gave me a copy of St. Petersburg Review (no. 3, 2009), a nicely produced thick journal of essays, fiction, poetry, and drama, with many pieces translated from Russian and Chinese… A few new releases from Russian-English translators: Marian’s translation of Andrei Gelasimov’s Жажда (Thirst) came out from Amazon Crossing last month… Psalms, Jim Kates’s chapbook of translations of psalms by Genrikh Sapgir, is out this December from Cold Hub Press… and Jamie Olson’s translation of Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak’s “Tale of How There Once Was a Fly Who Outlived the Others” (“Сказка о том, как жила-была последняя муха”) was published in the fall 2011 issue of Chtenia. Congratulations to all!

Bonus! The afore-mentioned St. Petersburg Review is one of the organizers of a poetry event on December 21 at 6 p.m. at the Cornelia Street Café in New York City. Host will be Alissa Heyman; poets Polina Barskova, Irina Mashinski, and Eugene Ostashevsky will read.

Up next: Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Rayad) and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club), then highlights of 2011.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Image credit: Site for Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Andrei Bely Prize Award Winners & Some Links

I’m about a week late and a ruble short on this one but want to mention winners of the Andrei Bely prize. Nikolai Baitov won the prose award for Думай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak or maybe Think Before You Speak), a collection of short stories. The poetry award went to Andrei Poliakov’s Китайский десант (Parenthetical information edited: please see comments... I’ll call this Chinese Landing Force, though an online bookstore calls it Chinese Descent. This title is (of course!) complicated since десант is usually a military landing or the troops who make them. I’m equally uninformed about these terms in English and Russian so suggestions are welcome.). Information on other Bely awards is available here. Just one of my rubles would endow this prize: that’s the value of the entire fund.

Bonus! Baitov is also a poet; some of his poems are available online in Jim Kates’s translations (Cardinal Points) (Jacket).

I learned about another award winner just before posting: John Woodsworth and Arkadi Klioutchanski won the Modern Language Association’s Lois Roth Award for a Translation of a Literary Work for their translation of Sofia Tolstaya’s My Life, published by the University of Ottawa Press. Woodsworth and Klioutchanski are both affiliated with the University of Ottawa. (press release) Thanks to the American Literary Translators Association for mentioning the award on Facebook.

I’ve run across a wealth of articles about Russian literature lately. Here are links to a few:

I always enjoy reading Russian Dinosaur’s blog but the two most recent posts were particularly engaging: the Dinosaur’s thoughts about The Collaborators, John Hodge’s new play about Mikhail Bulgakov, and a wonderful piece on a talk that Oliver Ready gave about translation. Oliver offered examples from Crime and Punishment, which he is translating, and the Dinosaur included one of the sentences, in the original and four translations. The blog called XIX век then followed with two related posts (here) and (here). XIX век is, by the way, written in English.

Last week Stephen Dodson, perhaps better known as Languagehat, opened the “A Year in Reading” series for The Millions with a post about Life and Fate. Life and Fate received more attention this week, through a review by Adam Kirsch on The New Republic’s site; the piece first appeared in Tablet. Also: The Quarterly Conversation published Malcolm Forbes’s essay about Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (in David McDuff’s translation); I still need to print this piece out so I can read it properly. (I also need to push Petersburg forward on my bookshelf… I’ve been intending to reread it for years.) Finally, Scott Esposito’s review of Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of Singing Caryatids, translated by Andrew Bromfield and recently released by New Directions, appeared on The National’s site.

Up Next: Trip notes about the American Literary Translators Association conference in Kansas City and Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Rayad), a novel about nationalism that feels a little formulaic... A year-end post with 2011 favorites is also on the schedule, and I’m planning to compile a list of new and upcoming translations. The latter will likely coincide with a presentation I’ll be giving at the Scarborough Public Library in late January—I’m excited to talk about some of the new titles at my town library!

It’s been an extraordinarily hectic fall—in lots of very, very good ways—but things seem to be settling back into a real routine, which means I’m getting back to my usual reading and writing habits. Thank goodness!

Disclosures: The usual.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Booker of the Decade Goes to Chudakov

The winner of the Russian Booker of the Decade was announced today: Aleksandr Chudakov won, posthumously, for Ложится мгла на старые ступени... (beginning) (end) (A Gloom Is Cast Upon the Ancient Steps). Время/Vremia, a Russian publisher, wrote on Facebook today that they are preparing the book for publication. The novel was a Booker finalist in 2001.
Rather than attempting to summarize yet another book I haven’t read, I’ll just say that the beginning of the book has been translated, by Timothy D. Sergay, who received a PEN Translation Fund grant and a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support his work. Chapter 1 is available (here) on Words Without Borders and Chapter 2 is online (here) on the PEN American Center site.
It’s been quite a week (a good one!) so I haven’t had much time to look at reactions to the award but I’ll add some links and thoughts over the weekend.
Up next: American Literary Translator Association conference notes and (I think) the Andrei Bely prize winners.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Jury Speaks: 2011 Big Book Award Winners

I’d like to thank the 2011 Big Book jury for making it easy for me to write this post. This year’s Big Book readers and jury chose the same book—Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book) (previous post)—as their big winner. The jury gave second prize to Vladimir Sorokin’s Метель (The Blizzard) (previous post), and Dmitrii Bykov’s Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) took third.

After enjoying Fazil Iskander’s stories about a boy called Chik (previous post), I was happy to see that Iskander won this year’s special award “за честь и достоинство” (“for honor and merit/virtue”). A big, thick collection of Iskander’s stories about Sandro of Chegem is on my shelf—not far from Bykov’s big, thick novel about Ostromov—waiting for that winter moment when I desperately need a long book. (I’m glad to have options: I’ve recently been resisting a fifth reading of War and Peace…)

Big Book also recognized Peter Mayer, of Overlook Press and Duckworth, for his contributions to literature. Overlook’s list of fiction translated from Russian over the last several years includes Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Interpreter (tr. Arch Tait), Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (tr. Marian Schwartz), Today I Wrote Nothing, a collection by Daniil Kharms (tr. Matvei Yankelevich), and several novels by Max Frei (tr. Polly Gannon, Ast A. Moore). Nonfiction titles include Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Soul: The Grandiose Propaganda of Stalin’s Russia (tr. Sam Garrett), which I enjoyed very much (previous post). Overlook has owned the Ardis list since 2002.

For more:

Up Next: Booker of the Decade, trip notes from the recent American Literary Translators Association conference, and maybe something about Aleksei Varlamov’s Купол (The Cupola or The Dome), though I’m finding the book rather inert, largely because of the dearth of dialogue.

Disclaimers: The usual. I should note that I always enjoy speaking with Peter Mayer and his Overlook colleagues at events during and around book fairs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Big Book Readers’ Choices & Tolstoy Event in NYC

Just a quick post for today, to let you know that three books were chosen as reader favorites as part of the Big Book Prize program: Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book) (previous post), Dmitrii Bykov’s Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood) (previous post). Readers voted online. I, unfortunately, forgot to vote.

I probably would have voted for Blue Blood, which I enjoyed very much despite a rough start. None of the books felt like sure winners or enduring favorites to me, though I certainly understand the appeal of Letter-Book… which I also enjoyed very much despite a rough start. I’m going to keep trying Bykov’s Ostromov in hopes of catching it when I’m in the right mood: it looks good but I think it’s asking to wait until the depths of winter.

Over all, despite some decent books, this year’s shortlist didn’t give me big favorites like last year’s, where I loved both Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs (previous post) and Gigolashvili’s The Devil’s Wheel (previous post). I thought two other, very different books – Pavlov’s dark Asystole (previous post) and Zaionchkovskii’s almost-light Happiness Is Possible (previous post) – were also very good for very different reasons. I’m curious to see which book wins the jury prizes next week particularly since several – those by Bykov, Slavnikova, and Sorokin – have already won major awards.

And a quick note on an event in New York City: on Friday, December 2, 2011, The Coffin Factory and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will host a reading and discussion of Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy: A Russian Life at 192 Books, 190 10th Avenue. The book, which was released in early November, is a 560-page biography of Lev Tolstoy. The event, scheduled for 7-8:30 p.m., has a listing on Facebook here.

Up Next: Trip report from the American Literary Translators Association conference, winners of the Big Book jury prize and the Booker of the Decade, and, eventually, Veniamin Kaverin’s Открытая книга (Whether I think this is The Open Book or An Open Book remains an open question…).

Disclaimers: The usual. And of course I still want to translate Senchin’s Yeltyshevs

Sunday, November 13, 2011

At the Heart of Buida’s Blue Blood

Iurii Buida’s latest novel, Синяя кровь (Blue Blood), is so filled with literary allusions, peculiar characters, and odd happenings that the book took some getting used to: on the first page, for example, a fly-catching elderly actress with the not-so-common name Ida gets up when the clock rings three in Africa. All this in a Russian town called Chudov, a name a little longer than чудо (miracle or wonder) and a little shorter than чудовище (monster). I’m glad the book and I came to terms after about 50 pages. Once I settled into Blue Blood, it became, by far, my favorite among this year’s Big Book Award finalists (previous post). I’ve read (or attempted to read) all the books on the list, though have yet to give Dmitrii Bykov’s Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) the real college try.

Africa, it turns out, is the name of the building where Ida lives: it was formerly the bordello known as Тело и дело—two rhyming words that mean body and deed—where Ida’s mother worked. Ida’s nephew, whom she calls Friday, narrates the book, telling stories about Ida, whom Buida based on actress Valentina Karavaeva. Meaning Blue Blood is a fictionalized, quirkily embroidered biography of Karavaeva filtered through a (fictional?) character’s childhood and adult observations. The nickname Friday, by the way, is just one piece of a series of references to Robinson Crusoe; Kirill Glikman’s review on focuses on that element of Blue Blood.

“Actress” sounds glamorous but Ida’s life is filled with pain: a brief marriage to an Englishman, an accident that ruins her film career by making her face look like a broken plate, the Stalinist repression, and the sudden appearance of a former husband’s wife and child. As Ida likes to say, “От счастья толстеют.” – “Happiness makes you fat.” She eats little and smokes 10 cigarettes a day, something memorable because of Friday’s habit of repeating lists of objects important to characters. Here, Glikman recognizes something from Robinson Crusoe (which I haven’t read) but Friday’s tic reminded me of repetition in fairy tales, particularly given the proximity of characters with names like Baba Zha. Blue Blood also contains dark, Soviet-era transformations of fairy tale elements identified by Vladimir Propp. Among them: Ida leaves home, returns home, handles numerous difficult tasks, and marries. There is villainy on many levels, and there is even a kiss (from a general, no less) worthy of the one that awoke Sleeping Beauty.

Buida also works in references to higher literature. Dostoevsky stood out for me, perhaps in part because I’ve been reading Netochka Nezvanova: one night I read from both books, and a chapter in each ended with a cliffhanger involving fainting. Beyond that, Buida offers a mention of people униженные и оскорбленные (often translated as humiliated and insulted), a child called Grushen’ka, and a character likened to a Dostoevskian pleasure-seeker. Beyond Dostoevsky, Ida plays Nina Zarechnaia in Chekhov’s Seagull. The name Zarechnaia (on the other side of the river), certainly suits Ida, who is clearly her own person, her own myth. One more: Ida recites Romeo and Juliet for hospital patients, improvising as needed, thus emphasizing characters’ storytelling powers as she tells of tragedy and suffering, something she says benefits those who come after us… I read this in a broad context—the family of all humanity—since Ida is childless and Buida populates his novel with orphans and broken families.

The metaphor of blue blood also flows through the novel: in short, Ida’s actress friend Serafima tells her red blood is hot and makes the head spin with ideas, but cooler blue blood is a more controlled, self-possessed mastery, “Страшный Суд художника над самим собой”—an artist’s self-imposed Judgment Day—something Serafima says is both a gift and a curse. It can freeze.

Buida’s novel is also a gift and a curse, though it’s my favorite kind of literary curse, a book that contains so much to consider, feel, and cross-reference that it doesn’t let me go or lend itself to quick analysis. The long list of big topics I’ve left uncovered includes death (e.g. Ida’s work with girls who release doves at funerals), purpose in life, a touch of something gothic, Chudov’s “Pavlov’s Dog” café, nightmares, and acting, which has subtopics like mimesis and a list of Ida’s various names and roles. Ida’s roles include parts she plays in her personal home movie archive as well as “Ida,” a name she selects for herself as a child instead of going through life as Tanya.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3.0/5.0 or so, moderately difficult. I found the book’s oddities more challenging than its language.

Up next: Dostoevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova and Kaverin’s Открытая книга (The Open Book or maybe An Open Book, I’m still deciding…), which has been a perfect (relatively) light book to take slowly at a time when I’ve been distracted by a confluence of work deadlines, a cold, and preparation for this week’s American Literary Translators Association conference. I may write about that, too, we’ll see.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NOSE Award Finalists for Winter 2011-2012

I guess it really is award season: yesterday the Andrei Bely and Booker of the Decade short lists came out, today it’s NOSE. The NOSE Literary Prize people from the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation announced their list today at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair. NOSE prizes will be awarded in late January 2012 during a talk show. Here’s the short list in Russian alphabetical order:
  • Andrei AstvatsaturovСкунскамера (Skunkamera).
  • Nikolai BaitovДумай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak). Short stories (41 in 320 pages) from a poet.
  • Igor’ VishnevetskiiЛенинград (Leningrad), a novella set in Leningrad during World War 2 that Vishnevetskii says is a postscript of sorts to Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg because he imagined Belyi’s characters in his own book. For more: interview with Vishnevetskii here.
  • Dmitrii DanilovГоризонтальное положение (Horizontal Position). (previous post) The news item about the short list notes that its Krasnoyarsk correspondent says this book was added to the list by "experts."
  • Nikolai Kononov: Фланёр (The Flâneur), a novel set in the 1930s and 1940s. ( review)
  • Aleksandr Markin: Дневник 2006–2011 (Diary 2006-2011), Live Journal posts from Russia’s first LJ blogger. Comments on note Markin’s interest in German literature and European architecture.
  • Viktor Pelevin: Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы (Pineapple Water for a Beautiful Lady), a bestselling story collection.
  • Maria Rybakova: Гнедич (Gnedich), a novel in verse about Russian poet Nikolai Gnedich, the first Russian translator of The Iliad. Rybakova is also a poet. Excerpt
  • Mikhail Shishkin: Письмовник (Letter-Book). (previous post)
  • Gleb Shul’piakov: Фес (Fes or Fez, as you prefer), a novel. The publisher’s description says Fes is about a man who brings his wife to the maternity hospital then, when left to his own devices, ends up in a basement in an unidentified eastern city… sounds like another case of warped reality. [Update on January 31, 2012: Oops! There was a mistake in the shortlist I used to compile this post... Fez was initially on the list, then removed.]
  • Irina Iasina: История болезни (Case History) appears to be a memoir about having multiple sclerosis.
News Bonus: Emanuel Carrère’s Limonov, a French-language book about Eduard Limonov, won Le prix Renaudot; it sounds like it straddles genre lines for biography and novel. Here are two news items: Russian and French (scroll down a bit). The Wikipedia entry on Carrère notes that he is the son of Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a historian who has written extensively about Russia and the Soviet Union. I still have her Decline of an Empire. The Soviet Socialist Republics in Revolt on my history/poli sci shelf.
Up Next: Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood) then Dostoevsky’s Неточка Незванова (Netochka Nezvanova).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Booker of the Decade & Bely 2011 Short Lists

Today was a big day for Russian book award short lists… Here are two quick bleary-eyed, late-evening lists [with a few next-morning edits]:

First, the Russian Booker of the Decade, for which a huge panel of past judges chose five books out of the 60 that were shortlisted over the past 10 years. The winner will be announced on December 1. The five finalists, in Russian alphabetical order, are:

  • Oleg PavlovКарагандинские девятины, или Повесть последних дней (A Ninth-Day Wake/Party at Karaganda or A Story of Recent Days/Commemoration in Karaganda). This is the third book in the trilogy that begins with Казенная сказка (A Barracks Tale), which I wrote about here. Pavlov’s novel is the only book on the list that has won a Booker.
  • Zakhar PrilepinСанькя (San’kya), which I wrote about here. I have a strong preference for Prilepin’s Грех, (Sin) (previous post), which won the SuperNatsBest earlier this year, but San’kya has often been cited for its political significance.
  • Roman SenchinЕлтышевы (1) (2) (The Yeltyshevs) (previous post), one of my favorite books of recent years [one I’d like to translate], a novel that was short-listed for everything but hasn’t won an award.
  • Liudmila UlitskayaДаниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) won the Big Book award a few years ago. I enjoyed the book very much when I read it several years ago (previous post). Daniel Stein came out in translation, from Overlook Press, earlier this year.
  • Aleksandr ChudakovЛожится мгла на старые ступени... (beginning) (end) (A Gloom Is Cast Upon the Ancient Steps), a complete mystery to me. Words Without Borders describes the book as a “memoiristic novel” and says Chudakov wrote “widely admired memoirs of such leading Russian literary scholars as Viktor Shklovsky, Viktor Vinogradov, and Lidia Ginzburg,” plus five books and a couple hundred articles.

Now for the Andrei Bely prize short list, for which winners will be announced on December 2… fortunately there is overlap with the NOSE long list, so I can copy and paste a few of these.

  • Nikolai BaitovДумай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak). Short stories (41 in 320 pages) from a poet.
  • Igor GolubentsevТочка Цзе (Not sure… The Tsze Spot, The Tsze Point, Sharpening Tsze? [see first comment, from languagehat]), apparently a collection of very short stories.
  • Vladimir Mikhailov Русский садизм (Russian Sadism). ?
  • Aleksandr MarkinДневник. 2006-2011 (Diary 2006-2011), Live Journal posts from Russia’s first LJ blogger, who has interests in German literature and European architecture.
  • Denis OsokinОвсянки (Yellowhammers), a novella that has already been made into a film known in English as Silent Souls.
  • Pavel PeppersteinПражская ночь (Prague Night). I know more (but still not much!) about Pepperstein as a conceptualist artist and founder of “Inspection ‘Medical Hermeneutics’” than as a writer. A friend did mention enjoying Prague Night, though.
  • Мария Рыбакова -- Гнедич (Gnedich), a novel in verse about Russian poet Nikolai Gnedich, the first Russian translator of The Iliad. Rybakova is also a poet. Excerpt

The Andrei Bely award also recognizes other types of writing, including poetry and humanitarian research. I’m especially excited about the poetry category this time – the nominees are Polina Barskova, Alla Gorbunova, Vladimir Ermolaev, Vasilii Lomakin, Andrei Poliakov, Aleksei Porvin, and Ilya Rissenberg – because I met Polina Barskova at a wonderful poetry translation conference here in Maine last weekend. The title poem from her nominated collection, Сообщения Ариэля (Ariel’s Message), is available in translation here on Cardinal Points, and has a video of Polina reading another poem (Соучастие (scroll down for text)). Even if you don’t understand Russian, it’s worth clicking through just to hear Polina’s voice and watch her expressions.

P.S. November 9, 2011: Melville House has a nice post on Polina Barskova that mentions her collections that have been translated into English plus some colorful background on the Bely Prize.

Up next: Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood).

Disclosures: The usual. I know Overlook Press from meetings in and around BookExpo America. And I still hope someone will decide they want to publish The Yeltyshevs!

Monday, October 24, 2011

M/М: Makanin, Mandel’shtam, and Co.

M turned out to be an unexpectedly prolific letter for favorite writers: I have one fiction writer and two poets to list, plus two literary helpers…

I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Vladimir Makanin and found more than enough to consider him a favorite. The very first Makanin line that I read, the beginning of the story “Сюр в Пролетарском районе”(“Surrealism in a Proletarian District”), got me off to a great start: “Человека ловила огромная рука.” (“A huge hand was trying to catch a man.”) (I used the translation in 50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories.) The sentence fit my mood and the story caught me, too; I went on to read and love Makanin’s novellas Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead) (previous post).

Later, Андеграунд, или герой нашего времени (Underground or A Hero of Our Time) (previous post) took a couple hundred pages to win me over with its portrayal of a superfluous man for the perestroika era but I ended up admiring the book. Not everything from Makanin has worked for me, though: I didn’t like the Big Book winner Асан (Asan) (previous post) much at all, the Russian Booker-winning Стол, покрытый сукном и с графином посередине (Baize-Covered Table with Decanter) didn’t grab me, and I couldn’t finish Испуг (Fear), which felt like a rehashing of Underground. Despite that, I look forward to reading more of Makanin, especially his early, medium-length stories. A number of Makanin’s works are available in translation.

More M writers: I very much enjoyed Afanasii Mamedov’s Фрау Шрам (Frau Scar) (previous post) and want to read more of his writing, and I’d like to explore Dmitrii Merezhkovskii and Iurii Mamleev more, too… I’ve read only small bits of both and would be happy for recommendations.

In poetry, I’ve always enjoyed Osip Mandel’shtam, whose acmeist poetry was a big part of my graduate coursework. “Адмиралтейство(“The Admiralty”) is a sentimental favorite, probably partly because it’s one of the first Mandel’shtam poems I read, partly because the Admiralty was a landmark for me when I spent a summer in Leningrad. Another: “Волк” (“Wolf”), which I analyzed a few years ago with a friend. I’ve also enjoyed reading Vladimir Maiakovskii, though I think I find him more memorable as a Futurist figure than as a writer.

As for the literary helpers: D. S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature has been with me since the early ‘80s, when I first started reading Russian literature in Russian. My little paperback is water-stained, falling apart, and dusty-smelling. But it’s a classic on the classics, and I still use it. I should also mention Gary Saul Morson, who taught War and Peace to me twice, first in an undergraduate course on history and literature that also covered Fathers and Sons and Notes from the Underground, then in a graduate course on War and Peace. I didn’t realize then how much he’d taught me about reading, writing, literary criticism, and carnival. One day (one year?) I will read all of his Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, in order, instead of picking up the book and reading random chunks, à la Pierre Bezukhov.

Up next: Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood), which I’ve been enjoying after a rough start with too many quirky names, then Dostoevsky’s Неточка Незванова (Netochka Nezvanova), which I’m reading as part of my preparation for speaking on a panel—with Marian Schwartz and Jamie Olson—at the American Literary Translators Association conference next month.

Image credit: Photo of Vladimir Makanin from Rodrigo Fernandez, via Wikipedia

Makanin on Amazon

Mandel'shtam on Amazon

A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 (an update I ought to buy [so the book doesn't make me sneeze]!)

Gary Saul Morson on Amazon

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Four Years with The Bookshelf

The cupcake is back, marking the end of my fourth year writing Lizok’s Bookshelf. With four years of blogging in the books (as they say) it was fun to take my annual look at a few trends on the blog, to see where visitors live and what brought them here. A few things have changed but there’s one constant: it’s always a pleasure to thank you, the readers who come here, for your visits and for the many recommendations, ideas, and pieces of advice you’ve offered, in blog comments, by e-mail, and in person.

I seem to say this every year but I’ll say it again: when I contemplated starting the blog four years ago, I never, ever would or could have thought that I would meet so many new friends and colleagues through The Bookshelf! It’s great to know there’s so much interest in Russian fiction.

Here are a few of my annual report statistics:

Geography. The countries with the most visitors never seem to change: United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, and Italy are still the top five countries. The top city has shifted, though, with New York and Moscow edging out London. I should point out, however, that Londoners take longer visits than New Yorkers or Muscovites. The next three cities in the top ten are Perm’, Milwaukee, and Oxford. There was a slight decrease in visits during summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

Popular Posts. The most popular post of the fiscal year was also a change: The Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature knocked the “Overcoat” post out of the top spot for the first time. Posts about Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag and Pushkin’s Belkin Tales were, respectively, the third and fourth most popular for the year.

Common and Odd Search Terms. Common terms first: Variations on Elena Chizhova’s name continue to come up often, and the Russian Booker Prize is also a draw. Other popular combinations for searches included Oleg Pavlov’s Asystole, the afore-mentioned Drawings from the Gulag, and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line. Several translators’ names come up regularly, too, and many readers come looking for information on award winners beyond the Booker.

This fall brought fewer odd searches than previous years but here are a few:

  • Lizok’s Bookstore: This one, which came up quite a few times, makes me happy, if only because I sometimes wish I did own a bookstore. Other visitors continue to come to the blog looking for bookshelves of various types.
  • I’m happy: Happy people visited from 10 cities, two in India, and eight others scattered all over the rest of the world. Numerous variations—e.g. happy face—popped up, too. The happy crowd gets funneled to a post about Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Happiness Is Possible.
  • First story of potatoes: I’m not sure what this person was looking for, but s/he was directed to a post about Oleg Pavlov’s Barracks Tale. Another book involving potatoes (fried, my favorite) is Dina Kalinovksaia’s Oh, Shabbat!, which I enjoyed very much, though I have yet to attempt making gefilte fish.

That’s it for this year’s annual report. Again, a big thank you—огромное спасибо—to all of you who visit The Bookshelf. I look forward to another year of reading, discussion, and, I hope, opportunities to meet more of you! Happy reading! Maybe next year I’ll actually bake some cupcakes.

Up Next: I’m not sure… Mikhail Lipskerov’s Белая горячка. Delirium Tremens hasn’t been holding my interest very consistently: it has some funny moments but feels too much like a rehashing of themes from other books about drinking and rough lives, like Moscow to the End of the Line and a couple of Vladimir Makanin’s books. I may just move on to Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood).

Cupcake photo: nazreth, via stock.xchng.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Totally: Novellas by Chukovskaya and Iskander

I first read Lydia Chukovskaya’s Софья Петровна (Sofia Petrovna) in the early ‘90s, when I lived in Moscow: it was one of six pieces in a collection called Трудные повести (Difficult Novellas) that also included Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit). My reading skills weren’t ready for Platonov then but I could read and appreciate Sofia Petrovna quickly, easily, without a dictionary. The novella was even more satisfying because I could tell Chukovskaya’s direct, unembellished language was the perfect medium for a story about a Leningrad widow whose son Kolya, an engineer, is arrested in the 1930s.

I appreciated Sofia Petrovna even more this time around, watching Chukovskaya unwind the story of Sofia Petrovna, a loyal Soviet citizen who becomes more and more unhinged trying to handle difficulties at work and the cruelly impossible task of finding her son. Chukovskaya experienced similar humiliations—she wrote the novella during November 1939-February 1940, after the arrest of her husband, which makes it even more remarkable—and demonstrates the effects of totalitarianism with painfully striking precision.

I’m thinking of totalitarianism in the second definition in my Webster’s New [sic: it’s dated 1981] Collegiate Dictionary—“the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority”—more than the first definition’s “centralized control by an autocratic authority” that creates the political concept. Chukovskaya’s novella is less about the system itself than its effects on the thinking and actions of regular people, represented by a circle of family and friends anchored by Sofia Petrovna. The book draws the reader into her psyche as Soviet life wears her down.

We hear Sofia Petrovna’s doubts about Kolya’s activity and friendships, experience her pain when her communal apartment neighbors say nasty things, and feel her deflation when she has brief audiences with government officials after waiting for hours, even days. As the novella continues and we witness her evolution from a happy, optimistic publishing house administrator to a recluse who barely eats, it’s not difficult to understand her confusion, her delusions, or her fears of everybody.

After Chukovskaya’s book I picked up a collection by Fazil’ Iskander and chose Сумрачной юности свет (The Light of Murky Youth) for one reason: at 75 pages, it was the longest piece in the book. I didn’t know the story was about an Abkhaz man, Zaur, whose father was shot during the Stalinist terror. Most of the story takes place when Zaur is an adult—there are mentions of Khrushchev—and the most vivid aspect of the story for me, perhaps because of my lingering thoughts on Sofia Petrovna, was the uneasy balance of private and public in Zaur’s life. That made the story feel like a later generation’s update on totalitarianism.

Iskander gives Zaur a childhood with public Stalin portraits and an adulthood that values privacy and individuality, whether he’s writing to the Central Committee about the need for more private farming or trying to find a place to be alone with his girlfriend. Though Iskander deftly blends believable characters with lots of telling episodes about required volunteer work, sneaking into forbidden places, police behavior, family pressures, and politics, the story felt a little lumpy to me. But that’s a minor complaint, what with the strong pull of the conflict between control and privacy (always a favorite), and Iskander’s ability to, like Chukovskaya, create vivid scenes, portraits, and stories out of simple words and complex human situations.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: Though I think the language in Sofia Petrovna is easier than the language in The Light of Murky Youth, I’d recommend both to readers looking for relatively easy novellas.

Up Next: Perhaps Mikhail Lipskerov’s Белая горячка. Delirium Tremens, which I began reading today at the beach. If I don’t like the book as reading material it may still have an honored place in my life and beach bag: it’s a paperback of the perfect size and thickness for killing the stinging beach flies that love to hover around my ankles.

Fazil Iskander on Amazon
Sofia Petrovna on Amazon

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Monday, October 3, 2011

2011 Yasnaya Polyana Awards

Winners of the Yasnaya Polyana Awards were announced today. Fazil’ Iskander received the “Contemporary Classic” prize for his three-volume Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem). Sandro of Chegem was a popular book among NOS-1973’s online voters earlier this year. Perhaps this is the sign I need to finally buy and read Sandro after enjoying some of Iskander’s Chik stories earlier this year (previous post).

Elena Katishonok won the “XXI Century” prize for Жили-были старик со старухой (Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife) (excerpt); Katishonok’s novel was a 2009 Russian Booker finalist.

At least some of Sandro of Chegem is available in translation, as are Iskander’s Chik stories. A description on says Katishonok’s book is a family saga about Russian Orthodox Old Believers set in the first half of the twentieth century.

Fazil' Iskander on Amazon

Жили-были старик со старухой on Amazon

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

2011 NOSE Long List

It’s been a long time since I’ve methodically gone through an entire long or short list for an award, adding links and descriptions… so here you go: the entire 25-member 2011 НОС/NOSE award long list, with a few notes, including links to previous posts about the four books I’ve read. As usual, I’m sure some of the title translations are awful due to lack of context. The NOSE award is a program of the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund.

I’m also sure more summaries, excerpts, and full texts are floating around in the Runet, but this warm fall day keeps calling me away from my computer! Though a few books sound interesting, I can’t say I found anything new on the list that I feel compelled to seek out right away, particularly since there seem to be a lot of short story collections and nonfiction books on the list. Marina Palei, whom I’ve been meaning to read for some time, is probably at the top of my list.

1. Andrei Astvatsaturov: Скунскамера (Skunskamera), a book that’s a veteran of long and short lists.

2. Karine Arutiunova: Пепел красной коровы (Ash from the Red Cow), a collection of very short stories.

3. Marina Akhmedova: Дневник смертницы. Хадижа (Diary of a Death Girl. Khadizha. [a key title word can mean a prisoner condemned to death or a suicide bomber]), a novel about a Dagestani girl that Akhmedova based on stories of real girls in the Northern Caucasus.

4. Nikolai Baitov: Думай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak). Short stories (41 in 320 pages) from a poet.

5. Il’ia Boiashov: Каменная баба (The Stone Woman) (previous post)

6. Iana Vagner: Вонгозеро (Vongozero), a debut novel about a nasty flu; the book grew out of Live Journal posts.

7. Igor’ Vishnevetskii: Ленинград (Leningrad), a novella set in Leningrad during World War 2 that Vishnevetskii says is a postscript of sorts to Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg because he imagined Belyi’s characters in his own book. For more: interview with Vishnevetskii here.

8. Natal’ia Galkina: Табернакль (Tabernacle)

9. Dj Stalingrad: Исход (could be Exodus or something like The Outcome), apparently about leftwing skinheads.

10. Dmitrii Danilov: Горизонтальное положение (Horizontal Position) (previous post)

11. Nikolai Kononov: Фланёр (The Flâneur), a novel set in the 1930s and 1940s. ( review)

12. Aleksandr Markin: Дневник 2006–2011 (Diary 2006-2011), Live Journal posts from Russia’s first LJ blogger. (This seems to be a common thread this year…) Comments on note Markin’s interest in German literature and European architecture.

13. Aleksei Nikitin: Истеми (İstemi), a novel about bored students who create a geopolitical game and get in trouble. (The description on the Ad Marginem site is much more complicated.) Risk, anyone?

14. Marina Palei: Дань саламандре (beginning end) (Tribute [the monetary kind] for the Salamander) was also long-listed for the National Bestseller award.

15. Viktor Pelevin: Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы (Pineapple Water for the Beautiful Lady), a bestselling story collection.

16. Andrei Rubanov: Тоже родина (Also a Motherland), a story collection.

17. Maria Rybakova: Гнедич (Gnedich), a novel in verse about Russian poet Nikolai Gnedich, the first Russian translator of The Iliad. Rybakova is also a poet. Excerpt

18. Figl’-Migl’: Ты так любишь эти фильмы (You Love Those Films So Much), a NatsBest finalist that lost in a tie breaker vote when Kseniia Sobchak cast her vote for Dmitrii Bykov instead. Sobchak said in an interview that she doesn’t consider F-M’s book literature. She also compares Bykov to McDonald’s and says she hates his ЖД (Living Souls) (previous post). Take that!

19. Margarita Khemlin: Крайний (Krainii: my previous post explains the title)

20. Andrei Sharyi and Iaroslav Shimov: Корни и корона (Roots and the Crown), essays about Austro-Hungary. ( review)

21. Mikhail Shishkin: Письмовник (Letter-Book) (previous post)

22. Nina Shnirman: Счастливая девочка (Lucky Girl) (excerpt); a book about a girl’s childhood that includes World War 2. I’m not clear if it’s strictly memoir or somewhat fictionalized. Either way, it was a Cosmo book of the month!

23. Gleb Shul’piakov: Фес (Fes or Fez, as you prefer), a novel. The publisher’s description says Fes is about a man who brings his wife to the maternity hospital and, when left to his own devices, ends up in a basement in an unidentified eastern city… sounds like more warped reality.

24. Aleksandr Iablonskii: Абраша (Abrasha), a novel with a vague summary.

25. Irina Iasina: История болезни (Case History) appears to be a memoir about having multiple sclerosis.

Up next: I’m hoping to finish Sergei Kuznetsov’s Хоровод воды (The Round Dance of Water) in time for a post next week.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Lermontov

My favorite Russian L writer has been with me since I began reading in Russian in the ‘80s: Mikhail Lermontov. My Russian literature class read Lermontov’s story “Тамань” (“Taman’”) from the novel-in-stories Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time); I read the entire book on my own a couple years later. Rereading and loving the book again two years ago was a treat, both because I could enjoy the quality of the writing so much more (thank goodness, after all those years!) and because Hero continues to be a source of allusions in contemporary Russian fiction. I should add that Lermontov’s poetry was a highlight of my grad school reading list.

Beyond Lermontov, though, my letter L reading has been a little limited... Leonid Leonov’s story Конец мелкого человека (The End of a Petty Man) was intriguingly peculiar (previous post) but now that I have some of his other books—Соть (Soviet River) and Вор (The Thief)—I have yet to pull one off the shelf to read. And then there’s Nikolai Leskov whose Леди Макбет Мценского уезда (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District) I read when I lived in Moscow. Unfortunately, my box of books with Lady Macbeth and other stories got lost somewhere between here and there: the box also contained Lolita and The Brothers Karamazov, so I’ve often wondered what went on in transit. One of these days I’ll buy some sort of replacement Leskov volume. A friend gave me Leskov’s Железная воля (An Iron Will), which I found less interesting than Lady Macbeth (previous post), though fairly easy to read. The blogger known as Amateur Reader, who writes Wuthering Expectations, recently read some Leskov and included fun links in posts. Another L writer on my shelf is Ivan Lazhechnikov, whose Ледяной дом (House of Ice) has been cooling its heels waiting for me for years. Maybe this winter.

Alas, contemporary L writers have yet to endear themselves to me… but maybe something by one of the Lipskerovs—Mikhail or Dmitrii—will grab me. Mikhail Lipskerov’s Белая горячка. Delirium Tremens (no translation needed, I think!) is dedicated to Venichka E and begins with a shot of vodka, so it’s definitely a book that calls for a specific type of reading mood.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Mikhail Lomonosov. Among other things, Lomonosov wrote poetry—I specifically remember his Ода на взятие Хотина (“Ode on the Taking of Khotin”) from my eighteenth-century Russian literature course—and helped reform literary Russian. He was also a scientist who wrote about topics like the uses of glass. Lomonosov and I crossed paths, albeit a couple centuries apart, in Arkhangel’sk, where I was given medallions with his profile. I owe Lomonosov some credit for helping me with my oral exams in Russian literature. I was a very undistinguished student of the history of the Russian language, so was grateful to be able to mention a visit to Arkhangel’sk when Lomonosov came up during my exam. One of my professors, Morton Benson, asked if I’d heard оканье there... the short explanation of оканье is that an unstressed “o” sounds like “o” instead of “a”—оканье can sometimes be heard in northern Russia. At any rate, I don’t remember what, exactly, I told Dr. Benson but I do remember that the unexpected tangent about travel certainly helped me relax.

As always, I look forward to readers’ thoughts on writers with names beginning with L.

Up next: I’m still enjoying Sergei Kuznetsov’s Хоровод воды (The Round Dance of Water), though it’s long…

Image credit: Self-portrait of Lermontov, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

More Awards News & a Bit on Grekova’s Faculty

There are weeks (like, say, last week) when it feels like I can’t check my blog reader or without finding more news about Russian literary awards. Book of the Year winners were named on Wednesday at the Moscow International Book Fair, and I was pleased to see that an eight-volume edition of works by Andrei Platonov, published by Vremia, won the main Book of the Year prize. Prose of the Year went to Olga Slavnikova’s Lightheaded (previous post); the other nominees in the prose category were Mikhail Shishkin’s Letter-Book (previous post) and a book of essays about history by Iakov Gordin. has a full list of winners here, and some short lists are available here.

Then the Yasnaya Polyana award announced its six-book short list on Friday. I don’t know much about any of these writers or books but that, of course, is why I so enjoy following prize lists. The winner will be announced in late September or early October.

  • Ergali Ger’s Кома (Koma) – This novella/long story starts with the phrase “Родом Кома была из Рыбинска”—“Koma was a native of Rybinsk”—which got me interested because I once spent a couple days floating around the Rybinsk Water Reservoir on a research vessel and eating fresh fish.
  • Elena Katishonok’s Жили-были старик со старухой (Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife) (excerpt) – This book was a Booker finalist in 2009.
  • Natal’ia Kliuchareva’s Деревня дураков (Village of Fools) – Kliuchareva is the only writer of the six that I’ve read so far: one of her stories is in the Rasskazy collection. It was one of my favorites. I still, BTW, highly recommend Rasskazy (previous post).
  • Irina Mamaeva’s Земля Гай (Gai Land, where Gai is the name of a settlement)
  • Iurii Mamleev’s Русские походы в тонкий мир (perhaps Russian Hikes/Campaigns Into a Subtle World?) – I still haven’t read much Mamleev, beyond a couple very short stories that I read at the beach recently.
  • Dmitrii Shevarov’s Добрые лица (Kind Faces)

As for I(rina) Grekova’s Кафедра (The Faculty): I realized I don’t have much to say about the book. After Grekova’s shorter Ship of Widows, Hairdresser, and Little Garusov, The Faculty felt a bit long and dispersed: the novel is composed of episodes in the lives of a math (cybernetics, I believe) department’s faculty members and students. The episodes are linked with various degrees of looseness and tightness; lives overlap like my beloved Venn diagrams. Grekova’s writing is, as usual, very readable, and she offers lots of insights and details on life, family, friendship, work, and death, reflecting Soviet reality… despite all that, plus Grekova’s tremendous compassion for her characters, The Faculty didn’t feel, well, special, compared with the other works I’ve read. I think the problem—a relatively minor one, I suppose, since I didn’t skim—is my preference for more tightly focused narratives.

Up Next: Well, there’s Leonid Girshovich’s “Вий”, вокальный цикл Шуберта на слова Гоголя (a title I’ve seen translated as “Viy,” Schubert’s Songs to Gogol’s Words), which I still think is peculiar. I’m also finding it a little repetitive and/or plodding, and definitely very showy so am going to do something I don’t usually do: read a chapter a day but focus more on another book, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Хоровод воды (Water’s Round Dance or The Round Dance of Water), a Big Book finalist. An excerpt, with comments from Kuznetsov, is on Snob. By coincidence, Kuznetsov’s book, which two friends recommended to me very highly, mentions the Rybinsk Water Reservoir in its early pages. Let’s hope this is a sign that it will help me break a streak of unsatisfying books.

Disclosures: Tin House, publisher of Rasskazy, is a publisher I enjoy speaking with about translated fiction.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day 2011 Potpourri: Dovlatov & Two Abandoned Books

Saturday, September 3 was the 70th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Dovlatov, author of The Compromise (previous post), one of my very favorite twentieth-century Russian books. There have been lots of celebrations of Dovlatov’s very short life this year, including awarding the Dovlatov prize on Saturday to Eduard Kochergin, for the story collection Ангелова кукла (Angel's Doll) and Крещенные крестами (Baptized with Crosses), which also won the National Bestseller award last year (previous post). New Yorkers can look forward to a Dovlatov event on October 30, 2011, “A Life Is Too Short,” described as “an evening of literature, music, and documentary images dedicated to Sergei Dovlatov.” I wish New York were closer!

Meanwhile, Dovlatov had a cameo appearance in a book I recently attempted to read but abandoned, Anatolii Naiman’s Каблуков (Kablukov), a novel about a screen writer. Joseph Brodsky also showed up. I’ve probably mentioned before that I have a personal (and perhaps inconsistent) dislike of mentions of writers and other historical figures in fiction… unless they’ve been dead for at least a couple of generations. The namedroppy resurrections of Dovlatov and Brodsky weren’t the primary reason I gave up on Naiman’s book, though: shifts in narrative point of view, heavy shapelessness, and lack of momentum or arc were far more fatal.

Lest I miss out on anything, I checked a couple reviews before putting Kablukov back on the shelf. I found that Time Out called it “не самый увлекательный роман на свете” (“not the most absorbing book in the world”) then learned that Lev Danilkin wrote that it lacks “raison d’Ptre” (hmm, a [sic] might be in order…), comparing it to Panikovsky sawing at a weight in The Golden Calf, looking for gold. Indeed. The first 60 pages of Kablukov contained some interesting material about Soviet-era life and the legacy of the Stalin-era repression, plus lots of allusions, but the text felt so dense and, for me, swampily aimless, that there was no reward for all the heavy lifting. I should add that there was a big fuss in 2005 when Kablukov did not win the Russian Booker.

By comparison, the first 60 or 70 pages of Leonid Girshovich’s peculiar Вий, вокальный цикл Шуберта на слова Гоголя (a title I’ve seen translated as “Viy,” Schubert’s Songs to Gogol’s Words) drew me right in. Girshovich’s novel about collaborators in occupied Kiev is thoroughly literary, too—unusually lively notes in the back explain numerous references—but Girshovich creates sharp, weird scenes, situations, and characters that give the book plenty of raison d’ être. This is a book that works despite my painful reference/subtext deficiencies; I haven’t read Bulgakov’s White Guard, Nabokov’s Gift, or Mann’s Magic Mountain, though at least I’ve read “Viy” and listened to lots of Schubert. Maybe this winter I’ll finally just force myself to read White Guard: I’ve already tried at least three or four times, not counting my attempts at the play version, Days of the Turbins, which I tried and failed to read when it was on my grad school reading list. Maybe this will finally be my year. Hope dies last!

Speaking of abandoned books, I also dumped Aleksei Slapovskii’s Большая книга перемен (The Big Book of Changes). The Big Book is on the short list for the 2011 Big Book award but I think its title is its only hope for winning. Though The Big Book of Changes is far easier reading than the Naiman and Girshovich books, Slapovskii’s portrayal of middle-age friends from high school and a family with some businessmen just didn’t hold my interest, even during a lazy day with Tropical Storm Irene. As with Slapovskii’s They (previous post), the characters and situations felt stereotypically typical and shoulder-shruggingly minor rather than archetypically typical and painfully emblematic because Slapovskii doesn’t portray them from new or unique perspectives. As many Russian reviewers have noted, Slapovskii is also a screenwriter, and the book reads more like the basis for a TV series than a novel. At 640 pages and 585 grams (according to Ozon) The Big Book of Changes certainly is a big book in size, but, based on the first 200 or so pages that I read, Slapovskii missed out, big time, on a big chance to transform a wordy chunk of writing into a big and important social novel. Cutting lots of back story and detail would have been a great start. I’m glad I read electronically.

Up Next: I still need to write about I(rina) Grekova’s Кафедра (The Faculty); the Girshovich book will be along next. (Based on all this recent experience, I should write “if I finish.”) Then I’ll return to Big Book shortlisters: I still have Buida, Bykov, Kuznetsov, and Soloukh to read. A reminder: all the books are online in various formats, here.