Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Fazil Iskander

Finally, a favorite writer for the letter И! I’ve had a collection of Fazil’ Iskander’s stories on my shelf since the ‘90s but never seem to want to pick it up... But Iskander’s Детство Чика (Chik’s Childhood) drew me in right away because its stories are connected by characters: a boy named Chik who’s finding his place in the world, his addled Uncle Kolya whose fishing tackle lacks a hook, and a group of neighborhood boys and girls.

I read three of the pieces in the book and particularly enjoyed the longest (of course!), Ночь и день Чика (Chik’s Night and Day), in which Chik has trouble sleeping at night – he thinks about fears, like scorpions – and then goes on an expedition with his friends the next day to harvest pine sap to make into chewing gum. Iskander’s writing is simple without being simplistic, and his observations about childhood create in Chik a vivid portrait of a boy who can be generous with other children, including a child teased for his disability, but sharp in his judgments. When Chik thinks about adult sneakiness, he reminds me of a young, Abkhazian Holden Caulfield.

I think what I enjoy most about the Chik stories is that Iskander presents a balance of information about Chik’s life and surroundings, including references to Chik’s knowledge of sociopolitical problems of the Stalin-era, like the arrest of a neighbor girl’s father and talk of wreckers, together with the childish joy of the pine sap adventure. That outing is fraught with hazards, too, like a band of neighborhood boys and a biting dog. In our era of play dates and safety, I’m sure many parents would disapprove of kids starting an outdoor fire to boil their pine sap! I should mention that I also loved the portrayal of Chik as a proud child actor – Chik does not lack in self-confidence – who gets demoted from a lead role to a nonspeaking role in “Чик и Пушкин” (“Chik and Pushkin”).

I’m setting Chik aside for now, saving the rest of the stories to read another time. By the way, according to Wikipedia, at least eight volumes of Iskander’s work have been translated into English.

As for other И/I writers… I enjoy Il’f and Petrov, particularly The Golden Calf (previous post), but they’ll never be favorites. And I thought many passages in Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Matisse (previous post) were very good but the book didn’t quite held together for me. Ilichevskii’s Persian is on my shelf waiting (or weighting, since it’s thick?) for a second try. I’m hoping Ilichevskii’s listing on the Academia Rossica Web site means he’s one of the 40 (!) or so writers who will be at the London Book Fair in April.

I always enjoy recommendations on my alphabet favorites posts, so look forward to reading comments!

Up Next: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Толмач (The Interpreter), which I enjoyed very much; I may need to add Gigolashvili to my Г/G favorites page. Then Olga Slavnikova’s Лёгкая голова (which I think I’ll call Light Headed, at least for now), a curious book about a brand manager at a chocolate company who is approached by government agents with a strange proposal.

Image credit: Abkhazian commemorative coin celebrating Iskander’s eightieth birthday, from Bank of Abkhazia and Sephia karta, via Wikipedia.


  1. Next year I might organise a challenge on Eastern European Literature and I would be looking out for your recommendation

  2. Nana, thank you for your comment and (as always!) your interest in Russian fiction. When people ask for reading recommendations, I usually suggest they take a look at the links in the sidebar of my blog, particularly those in Russian Writers A to Я, Other Reading Ideas, and Back to Classics. There are lots of book listed!

  3. The only other important I I know of is Vsevolod Ivanov (father of the linguist Vyacheslav Ivanov), whom I've never read but who sounds interesting based on Edward J. Brown's description:

    "Ivanov, too, in his early period is a conscious literary stylist. Plot and incident are less important in his stories than their lyrical atmosphere, though narrative structure is not absent from his work, as it often is from that of Boris Pilnyak. Even when the actions described are harsh and cruel, the language is musical and evocative, and scenes are depicted with an artist's sensitivity to line and color."

    There's also Vasili Ilyenkov, author of the socialist-realist novels Driving Axle (1931) and A Sunny City (1935), but I doubt anyone would want to read him any more. Certainly not me.

    Incidentally, I just ordered a collection of Pilnyak, which I'm very much looking forward to reading. I have an Iskander collection (no Chik stories, unfortunately) but have not read him yet.

  4. Thank you, Languagehat, for mentioning the Ivanovs. I'd completely forgotten about Viacheslav Ivanov, whose poetry I read in a course. Vsevolod does, indeed, sound interesting.

    I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on Pil'niak! I loved his Голый год years ago when I read it in translation. It's one I keep meaning to revisit.

  5. Lisa,
    there is also a very good poet Georgy Ivanov, a member of acmeists. He also wrote prose. There is an article on him in wikipedia. After the revolution he lived in Var, France, in emigration and was not published in Russia until the 80s. He has now been reappraised and is highly regarded.

    I too recommend Boris Pilnyak.

  6. Alexander thank you for mentioning G. Ivanov! His "Распад атома" has been in my stack since November, when Olga Elagina, one of the writers I met at the Squaring the Circle event, mentioned him... she's writing her dissertation about Ivanov and highly recommended him, too.

  7. I highly recommend Iskander's short stories, many of which can be found in English translation in the Progress, Thirteenth Labour of Hercules. Many have that wonderful fabulist quality that Russian writers are so good at.