Sunday, March 27, 2011

NOS-1973, Shishkin’s Letters, Chizhova’s Crimes, and Reading Russian Group in London

News items and book comments piled up during a week of cold-induced sniffling and tiredness, so here’s everything, in brief, all at once…

1. The jury for the experimental NOS-1973 award recognized Andrei Siniavskii’s Прогулки с Пушкиным (Strolls with Pushkin) during public debates on March 25. The NOS-1973 expert committee, however, chose Venedikt Erofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line) and audience members picked Varlam Shalamov’s Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales). Online voters preferred Fazil Iskander’s Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem). This is such a curious project idea that I’m not sure what else to say except that all these works are available in English translation. (Previous post on NOS-1973)

2. Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book) was an odd reading experience: the book is a novel in letters, not a genre I’d choose as a favorite, and I would have put the book down for severe lack of interest early on if it hadn’t been on the London Book Fair schedule. The combination of letter writers – a man serving in the military and a woman living an everyday life – make me wonder if this is another book where the men will read War and the women will read Peace.

Despite the inauspicious start, Letter-Book began to appeal to me about halfway through. I’ll be vague because there are several key bits that I don’t want to reveal beyond noting that points out that a письмовник (letter-book) collects samples or models of letters… So why my change of heart? For one thing, I realized why I’d felt a disconnect in the series of letters. For another, the woman’s stories of caring for a friend’s children and then her dying parents were nicely told, almost archetypical in their detailed ordinariness. Those pages alone redeemed the book for me, though I also began to appreciate Shishkin’s use of repetition and his messages about writing, language, pain, death, and transcendence. Now I’m looking forward to – finally! – reading Венерин волос (Maidenhair), which, by the way, Marian Schwartz is translating for Open Letter.

3. Elena Chizhova’s 2005 Booker finalist novel – called Преступница (The [female] Criminal) in its journal version and Полукровка (Half-Blood) in a newer book version – was an odder, more difficult experience, largely because redemption never came, despite very promising material about hatreds and social problems. Chizhova tells the Soviet-era story of Masha, a young woman of mixed ethnicity – her mother is Russian, her father is Jewish – who submits false papers so she can be admitted to an institute. Masha has already experienced anti-Semitism during a university’s admissions process and at home, from her communal apartment neighbor. Though I expect most readers would sympathize with Masha’s ambitions and her family’s traumas, some of Masha’s other actions are peculiarly mean-spirited. Hence the original “criminal” title.

Though Masha’s harshness initially made the book feel unpredictable and edgy, the effect quickly wore off as the book structure grew messier: I don’t think Chizhova managed to unify the novel’s animal metaphors, characters, and social issues into a cohesive novel. Masha’s classmate Valya, for example, is an on-and-off presence in the book whose loneliness is rooted in a wish to be accepted by caricature-like mean girl dormmates. Unfortunately, Valya’s problems felt hysterical and trivial to me compared to Masha’s. Masha’s relationship with a much-older professor, who did time in a Stalin-era camp in his youth, is even more frustrating. He is depicted as a wolf – even a wolf in a sheepskin coat! – and an alcoholic, and Masha’s attraction to him is mystical.

4. Russian Reading Group in London. Reactions to Chizhova’s Крошки Цахес (Children of Zaches) have been far more positive, so I wish I’d chosen that novel instead of Half-Blood. Chizhova, with Children of Zaches, is one of four writers on the list for discussion at a Russian reading group meeting that And Other Stories will hold on April 4, 2011, at Pushkin House in London. And Other Stories has Russian-language books available for borrowing and English-language excerpts available for download. The other writers on the agenda are Oleg Pavlov, Aleksei Slapovskii, and Oleg Zaionchkovskii. Writer pages on the And Other Stories Web site invite comments, so you can offer thoughts on a book or writer even if you can’t make the group meeting.

Though I won’t be arriving in time for the reading group meeting, I’m looking forward to meeting with And Other Stories when I’m in London for the book fair. They’re a new publisher with an unusual perspective: “And Other Stories wants to open up publishing, so that great readers who don’t happen to be editors can have a say in publishing choices.” Other upcoming reading groups focus on German, Portuguese, and French books, and past groups have included Lithuanian literature.

Up next: Margarita Khemlin’s latest novel, then Путь Бро (Bro) the prequel novel of Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Russian Booker Comes Full Circle

Yesterday was an interesting day for the Russian Booker Prize… The big news was the announcement that the Booker has no more money because its 10-year sponsorship contract with BP – yes, the BP more formally known as British Petroleum – has ended. The Booker people are looking for new financial backing. I wonder if they’re searching for another sponsor with the initials BP.

A few hours later I saw that last year’s Russia Booker winner, Elena Koliadina’s Цветочный крест (The Cross of Flowers) “won” the Полный абзац (Complete Abzats) antiprize. Abzats awards recognize “all the worst in literature” and are presented by the newspaper Книжное обозрение (Book Review) (previous post with Abzats description/definition). Among other things, the award announcement cited Koliadina’s attempt to simultaneously sit on three genre “chairs”: women’s, historical, and grotesque. AST, which published The Cross of Flowers in book form, noted that the award recognized the journal version of the novel, not the AST version. Heaven forbid! Of course that very same journal version won the Booker (previous post). Alas, the journal version of the book is no longer available online.

As someone who follows the Booker at a distance, I found the Abzats announcement about the Koliadina book more than a little amusing, an exclamation point of sorts on the Booker bankruptcy announcement. My head is feeling slow and addled by Sudafed so I’ll stop there before I turn this post into a complete abzats of a mess.

Up next: When my wits are back I’ll write about Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book) and Elena Chizhova’s Полукровка (Half-Breed or Half-Blood). And then Margarita Khemlin’s most recent book.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Notable New Translations, NOS-1973, and Many Events

There’s lots of news to report today so I’ll just get to it…

New Translations: Today’s New York Times Books Review carried Stephen Kotkin’s generally favorable review of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, which FSG releases on Tuesday in Jamey Gambrell’s translation. Kotkin, a Princeton history professor, includes historical background related to the book and Sorokin’s career plus more details than I would have wanted to see before reading the novel. I thought the book was very good (previous post) so am pleased the Book Review ran a full-length piece. Kotkin mentions, in passing, Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, also translated by Gambrell, which comes out on Tuesday from New York Review Books. I’m still planning to read the second trilogy book soon. Though I didn’t especially like the first book, Ice (previous post), when I read it, I’ve warmed to it over the years, after reading more Sorokin.

I’m even more excited that Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Даниэль Штайн, Переводчик, will be out in late March, as Daniel Stein, Interpreter in Arch Tait’s translation, from Overlook. I loved the book when I read it three years ago (previous post), and have been enjoying rereading the beginning and taking a look at how Ulitskaya combines historical and invented material. She does that in her latest book, Зелёный шатёр (The Green Tent), too, but to much different effect, creating a more traditional book of fiction: linked stories with cameo appearances from real people, rather than Daniel Stein’s collection of fictional documents, based on actual people, and written to feel real. (I hope that makes sense!)

Events: Ulitskaya will be making several appearances in New York in early April. She’ll be at the Brooklyn Public Library on April 2 at 4 p.m., for a Russian-language program. She’ll also read at The Harriman Institute on April 5 at 6 p.m. Ulitskaya will appear at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, too, at 7 p.m. on April 6 in a CEC ArtsLink program; the event will be conducted in English but Ulitskaya will read in Russian, "accompanied by a reading of the English translation." Full details are online here. Also: Vladimir Sorokin is on the list of writers coming to the PEN World Voices program during April 25-May 1. He’ll be appearing with Keith Gessen on April 30 (information) and in "Russia in Two Acts," an event on May 1 featuring, among others, Garry Kasparov and Jamey Gambrell (information).

Ulitskaya and dozens of other writers are on the packed schedule for next month’s London Book Fair. I’m especially looking forward to meeting Margarita Khemlin after translating one of her stories, and hearing Mikhail Gigolashvili speak about his Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel), which I enjoyed so much (previous post). I’m also hoping to meet some blog readers… do let me know if you’ll be there so I can watch for you.

NOS(E)-1973: I noticed a news item today about an unusual program from the Prokhorov Foundation, NOSE-1973, involving literature published or written in 1973. In brief, NOSE-1973 recognizes diverse work that is aesthetically and socially significant but the program is designed to explore the NOSE award process using recognized classics. (No money is mentioned: this sounds like a just-for-fun venture.) Public debates will be held on March 25 but you can vote online here. When I wrote this post, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales was leading Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line, 40 to 36 votes.

Many of the works on the list have been translated, so this is a great program for readers who don’t know Russian! Several of the books have been waiting on my shelves for years... The nominees:

  • Aleksandr Galich. Генеральная репетиция (Dress Rehearsal)
  • Venedikt Erofeev. Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line)
  • Vasilii Shukshin. Характеры (Characters, a story collection)
  • Andrei Siniavskii. Прогулки с Пушкиным (Strolls with Pushkin)
  • Liudmila Petrushevskaia. Уроки музыки (Music Lessons, drama)
  • Fazil Iskander. Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem)
  • Sasha Sokolov. Школа для дураков (A School for Fools)
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Архипелаг ГУЛАГ (The Gulag Archipelago)
  • The Strugatskii Brothers. Пикник на обочине (Roadside Picnic)
  • Iurii Trifonov. Нетерпение (Impatience)
  • Evgenii Kharitonov. Undated prose from the 1970s.
  • Varlam Shalamov. Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales)
  • Igor Kholin. Prose written from the late 1960s to 1973
  • Vladimir Nabokov. Strong Opinions

Disclosures: Standard disclosures apply. I have not seen or read any of the newly translated books.

Up Next: Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book), which redeemed itself in the final third, and Elena Chizhova’s Приступница / Полукровка (The [female] Criminal or Half-Breed), which is either chaotically unsatisfying or unsatisfyingly chaotic. Or perhaps both.

Image credit: Photo of “commemorative plaque for Varlam Shalamov in Vologda on the house where he was born,” from Маниту, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Who’s to Blame? Reading Slavnikova’s Lightheaded

Olga Slavnikova’s Лёгкая голова (which I’ll continue calling Lightheaded) is a novel about freedom in contemporary Russia that’s much easier to read than to write about, so I apologize if this post is a little messy. The story’s kernel: Maksim T. Ermakov, a chocolate company brand manager in possession of heavy body and light head, is approached by a government social prognosticator who hands over a gun and asks MTE to deliver Russians from disasters by shooting himself in the head. By creating in MTE a scapegoat for death, doom, and destruction, Slavnikova plays with age-old burning questions: “Who’s to blame?” and “What is to be done?” and “Do the ends justify the means?”

I enjoyed Lightheaded: it’s a thriller in its second half, but Slavnikova’s social commentary, satire, and riffs on freedom mean it’s far from empty-headed. MTE, who’s something of a loner, fights the request to kill himself, asserting his right to live, buy foreign goods, and, of course, exercise his right to be a couch potato and watch sci fi on TV. Though calling the main character “Maksim T. Ermakov” throughout the book felt a bit precious, the repetition certainly underscored the fact that the first letters of “maksimum” are M-a-k-s-i-m. I also wondered if Ermakov refers to Russian psychoanalyst Ivan Ermakov… or perhaps Ermak Timofeevich (Alenin), Cossack ataman and Siberian explorer.

I read the journal version of Lightheaded, from Znamia (which gave the novel an award), rather than the book version of the book. Meaning it’s possible I didn’t get the full story, though I certainly came away with the feeling I’d read a complete novel. There were no plot holes and even the journal version felt just a touch heavy in passages about MTE’s ghostly Stakhanovite grandfather and Internet comments about a video game based on MTE. On the other hand, I thought the section about MTE’s distant relationship with his family, though a bit tangential, was very poignant.

Those minuses are minor: even if Lightheaded wasn’t quite as edgy or unpredictable as I yearned for it to become, it’s a very competent, very readable piece of thoughtful mainstream – I mean that in a good way! – literary fiction that looks at big problems from the perspective of an individual. In my experience, that’s a rarity in Russian and in English.

In case you’re wondering… Slavnikova’s language is simpler in Lightheaded than in her Booker-winning 2017 and the book is, over all, less dense than 2017, too, though metaphor production hums along in Lightheaded. Despite the dire implications of the prognosticator’s request and an ending I won’t describe, Lightheaded feel almost cozy thanks to the relative familiarity and quirky ordinariness of its settings and characters, such as MTE’s chocolate job and religious neighbors who feign drunkenness and loose morals to blend in.

Slavnikova acknowledged in an interview that Lightheaded is risky because it may be considered lighter than her previous books, and she denies critic Viktor Toporov’s assertion that she wrote with translation in mind. (I’ve been trying to avoid reviews of Lightheaded until after I’ve posted so haven’t read Toporov’s comments…) In any case, Lightheaded is on the London Book Fair agenda, as Lighthearted, for presentation as a book recommended for foreign markets. I think Lightheaded would translate well and appeal to a relatively broad swath of Western readers. I’d certainly recommend it, thanks to Slavnikova’s blend of Russian specifics and universal questions about freedom and rights, with mysticism, absurdity, and humor swirled in.

jetBook note: Since some of you have been curious about my jetBook-Lite, I’ll add that I read Lightheaded on the jetBook in RTF format. I still don’t want to give up my paper-and-a-cover books but I do enjoy reading on the jetBook: it’s small and easy to handle, and I can even search for Russian words in a text. (There’s a Russian-English dictionary, too.) Sometimes I forget to recharge the batteries, though I could always substitute off-the-shelf AAs, and I most miss flipping through pages, but I’m getting accustomed to keeping notes in journals (very kindly provided by a former Russian student) rather than the margins and back covers of a book.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: Moderately difficult in places, 2.5 or 3.0/5.00, with many metaphors and some slang, including a touch of Olbansky. In the journal version, the book generally moves along quickly, giving it good reading momentum.

Up next: Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book), another book on the agenda at the London Book Fair that will be difficult to write about. Then Elena Chizhova’s Полукровка (first published, in a journal, as Преступница), in English either Half-breed or Criminal, of the female variety.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The 2011 National Bestseller Looooong List

I’ve grown to enjoy literary award long lists: I guess I like the fact that long lists are so long, meaning they serve up dozens of reading ideas. I’ve also found that many of my favorite books make it to multiple long and short lists but don’t win big prizes. Today there’s an additional long list benefit: posting about this year’s NatsBest gives me a nice reprieve from finishing my piece about Olga Slavnikova’s Лёгкая голова (Lightheaded). I’ve been struggling with it for days...

So! The NatsBest long list contains around 60 nominations; manuscripts and books, in journal or book form, are eligible. A few to mention:

The most popular book, with three nominations, is Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Скунскамера. The title, Skun(k)skamera, is a play on “Kunstkamera.” Astvatsaturov’s Люди в голом (People in the Nude) was a finalist for last year’s NatsBest. For his part, Astvatsaturov nominated Mikhail Elizarov’s Мультики (‘Toons); it’s the only book on the list that I’ve read so far (previous post).

The most-nominated author, by titles, is Andrei Rubanov, who has three books on the list: Тоже родина (Also a Homeland or Another Homeland), Йод (Iodine), and Психодел (I’ll call it Psychodeal: the book blurb says the title is a combination of two Russian words: psychosis and the verb делать, to do…). Homeland is a collection of stories; the other two books are novels. Roman Senchin nominated Iodine, which is apparently somewhat autobiographical; Senchin’s Изобилие (Abundance), a book of stories, made the list, too.

The NatsBest is intended to make a book into a bestseller – its slogan is “Проснуться знаменитым,” “Wake up famous” – but Pavel Krusanov nominated Viktor Pelevin’s Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы (Pineapple Water for the Beautiful Lady), a book that’s already been at the top of bestseller lists; as of today, it’s at number 6. Oh well. Meanwhile, German Sadulaev’s Шалинский рейд (The Raid on Shali) was nominated twice but withdrawn for not fitting the competition’s rules because it was a 2010 Booker finalist. Elena Koliadina, who won the 2010 Booker, is on the big jury for the NatsBest.

Two more: Marina Palei’s Дань саламандре (Tribute [the old-fashioned kind] for the Salamander) (beginning) (end) is allegedly a Petersburg novel… I enjoyed Il’ia Boiashov’s The Tank Driver or “White Tiger” (previous post) so may give his Каменная баба (The Stone Woman) a try, particularly since the Russian phrase for “stone woman” refers to ancient statues and the book’s action, at first glance, anyway, looks thoroughly contemporary…

I’ll finish by saying that Viktor Toporov mentions in his commentary about the list that Boiashov is one of four nominees who’s already won the NatsBest. The other three are Dmitrii Bykov, Pelevin, and Aleksandr Prokhanov.

Up next: The afore-mentioned post about Slavnikova’s Lightheaded, which I enjoyed. Then Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book), which I’m not so thrilled about.