Sunday, July 31, 2011

Favorite Russian Writers А to Я: Karamzin and Kataev

K is yet another strange letter in my alphabetic reading: I’ve read lots and lots of K writers but not many seem truly special. Here are a few, though, that I’ve enjoyed and/or want to read more:

Historian and fiction writer Nikolai Karamzin is a big sentimental favorite because his Бедная Лиза (Poor Liza) is the first work of Russian literature that I read in the original. Being a Liza/Leeza myself, if only in Russian, the story has been following me around for years. This teary piece of work still resonates in Russian fiction, too, with echoes in, among others, Boris Akunin’s Fandorin series, where characters in the first book share names with Karamzin’s. I was also reminded of Karamzin’s Liza a couple weeks ago when I went back to my piece about Viktor Martinovich’s Paranoia, which features a Liza.

A Soviet-era near-favorite is Valentin Kataev, whose Белеет парус одинокий (A White Sail Gleams) I remember as blending political activism, adventure, and coming of age, an odd but interesting mixture. I also enjoyed Kataev’s comic Растратчики (The Embezzlers) and Время, вперёд! (Time, Forward!), an especially energetic piece of socialist realism. A plus: all these Kataev titles (and others) have been translated into English. Dina Kalinovskaia’s О, суббота! (Oh, Shabbat!), a wonderful short novel, is another Soviet-era favorite (previous post). Alas, I don’t think much more of her work is available.

I’ve had mixed luck with contemporary writers whose last names begin with K. Evgenii Kliuev’s Андерманир штук (Something Else for You) was charming and mysterious on some levels (previous post) but not quite “there,” though I want to try more from Kliuev. And Aleksandr Kabakov’s Невозвращенец (No Return) was also just okay (previous post), though I’ve kept Kabakov on my “sooner” shelf because I’m still curious.

Near-future forays into K writers include Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, whose Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club) I’m very much looking forward to after hearing and reading many, many positive comments about Krzhizhanovsky’s work. I looked for his books in Russian, on and off, for several years and feel very fortunate to have found a used copy of a collection that includes Club, so I can read it before New York Review Books releases Joanne Turnbull’s translation later this year. There’s an excerpt of Club, translated by Turnbull, in Counterfeits, this year’s edition of Two Lines, from the Center for the Art of Translation. I’m exited to write that I have a story in Counterfeits, too, my translation of Margarita Khemlin’s Третья мировая Баси Соломоновны -- Basya Solomonovna’s Third World War.”

Up Next: Iurii Buida’s Дон Домино (Don Domino, known in Oliver Ready’s translation as The Zero Train) and Viktor Astaf’ev’s Печальный детектив (The Sad/Mournful Detective). Then Dmitrii Danilov’s Горизонтальное положение (Horizontal Position). A nonfiction roundup post should also be on the way soon, if I ever read the second half of Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern.

Disclosures: I always enjoy speaking with New York Review Books about translations.

Image credit: Soviet stamp from 1991 uploaded to Wikipedia by Mariluna

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Best of Intentions: Oleg Pavlov’s Barracks Tale

Oleg Pavlov’s writing seems to drive me to contradictory reactions: even when I don’t enjoy his books, I can’t put them down. And then, upon reflection, I find myself respecting, liking, and recommending them. Pavlov’s Асистолия (Asystole or Flatline), which I called “a real downer” when I read it last year, still feels like a downer because it delves into the psychology of a nameless guy in post-Soviet Russia who lacks heart function… but it still won’t let me go, a quality I value more than enjoyment during reading.

Pavlov’s Казенная сказка, which I’ll call A Barracks Tale for now, is a downer, too, though in a very different way: Pavlov offers up a sad military parable with a big share of absurdity. I came away from this first novel amazed at Pavlov’s ability to weave together the tragic and the absurd using wickedly expressive language that is almost home(l)y without being cloying or fussy.

With plenty of plot and a setting in the Kazakh steppe, A Barracks Tale may be more topographically open than the extreme interiority of Asystole but Pavlov’s depiction of relationships and close quarters at a military company co-located with a prison, gave me a powerful feeling of claustrophobia. The crux of the story: a captain, Khabarov, plants potatoes to keep his men from going hungry then gets in trouble; the potatoes are confiscated. That’s only the half of it, but Khabarov’s actions and fate (a bad one that I won’t reveal since this book is destined for translation) remind me of one of the most famous utterances credited to Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, “Хотели как лучше, получилось как всегда,” roughly “We wanted better but things turned out the same as usual.” I won’t summarize the plot more since Pavlov’s Facebook page includes a summary (written by Susan Anne Brown for Dalkey Archive Press) of Tale and two subsequent short novels; the trilogy is known as Повести последних дней (Tales of Recent Days).

The summary also likens Pavlov to Gogol, which is perfectly apt, though Pavlov’s humor seemed more muted to me, perhaps because it’s so intrinsically connected with the tragedy and recentness of horrible degradation in the late Soviet era. Pavlov’s dense writing and vivid imagery is perfect for conveying the deprivations and indignities—including lice, not enough (unappetizing) food, and cold—the men face. I felt immersed in shades of khaki, brown, and gray. Though the imagery and action sometimes seemed a little overwhelming and even over-extended—as with Asystole I sometimes couldn’t quite recall what I’d read but then realized, upon review, that I hadn’t missed anything—the novel wraps up with a welcome clarity I hadn’t expected.

As for that title. The second word, сказка/skazka, is the easy one: it’s the word for a fairytale or folk tale. But казённая/kazyonnaya, is difficult because it’s derived from the word казна/kazna, for treasury. Казённый is often used to refer to government property but has taken on more metaphorical meanings that reflect how people see government property and matters: bureaucratic, bland, mediocre. It’s a perfect choice for the title of the book because it expresses so much, from government involvement in a horrible episode to the ubiquitous nature of the problems it depicts.

Toward the end of the book, Pavlov refers to Khabarov as “our captain,” reinforcing his own role as storyteller—this is a skazka, after all—as well as Khabarov’s representation of his men and, by extension, humanity. That “our”—and others before it—also reinforces Pavlov’s power to draw the reader into his story.

Disclosures: Oleg Pavlov very kindly gave me a copy of Казённая сказка at the London Book Fair, where we talked about his work, particularly Asystole. I’ve also met other people involved in bringing A Barracks Tale into English, including Stefan Tobler of publisher And Other Stories.

Up next: Iurii Buida’s Дон Домино, Don Domino, known in Oliver Ready’s English translation as The Zero Train, which I enjoyed very much. And then Viktor Astaf’ev’s Печальный детектив (The Sad Detective), which I’ve just started. Favorites from the letter K and a nonfiction roundup are on the way this summer, too.

Image credit: Ayla87, via

Sunday, July 10, 2011

More Fairytale Transformations: Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless

I realized as I read Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, a novel that re-imagines Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna as husband and wife during the Soviet era, that I seem to enjoy the idea of folk tales more than I enjoy folk tales themselves. I love looking at Vladimir Propp’s list of fairytale motifs and, though I probably shouldn’t admit this, I’d much rather read Valente’s book – or Anna Starobinets’s Sanctuary 3/9, which I enjoyed so much in 2009 – than a book of straight-ahead fairytales or folk stories.

Not that I’m committing a horrible literary sin: folk tales are all about variation, and one of the main points of Propp’s work and Valente’s novel is that plot turns and characters in folk stories repeat. And repeat. Valente emphasizes this in Deathless, as when Baba Yaga tells Marya, “Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”

We meet Marya Morevna in the first paragraph of Deathless:

In a city by the sea that was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.

Marya waits years for her future husband to show up, first witnessing the arrivals of her three sisters’ suitors, who fly to a tree as birds, fall to the ground, and become humans who claim their wives with words specific to their times. The passages involving Marya’s sisters were some of my favorite in the book: Valente’s lovely language and use of fairytale-inspired repetition fit together beautifully. I also thought the sadness of Soviet-era communal living in the long, thin house worked nicely, when Marya has twelve mothers and meets the building’s domovye, house spirits.

I was less enthusiastic about Marya’s life after Koschei, the bird-then-husband whose last name is Bessmertmyi, or Deathless, takes her to Buyan. There we meet many other folk tale characters including Baba Yaga, Koschei’s sister, who smokes cigarillos and danced on Lenin’s coffin; she’s definitely not the Baba Yaga I met in Jack and Jill magazine as a child. Some of Baba Yaga’s comments felt a little shticky to me – “Husbands lie, Masha. I should know; I’ve eaten my share.” – but others felt suitably mean, and she tests Marya before her wedding to make sure Marya can rule her husband. Control is a big theme here.

Though I enjoyed Deathless as a way to fill in some of the holes in my knowledge of Russian tales and even found myself missing it a little when I finished – it was my bedtime story – I agree with a Goodreads reader who wrote just one sentence about the book: “Fairy tales without character development cannot be sustained for an entire novel.” Deathless’s characters, most of whom are variations on folk tale figures, aren’t as richly developed as their surroundings and situations, which meant, for me at least, that the element of fear was far less palpable than in Sanctuary 3/9. Scariness in Deathless felt abstract in the fairytale and Soviet worlds, through, for example, Koschei’s endless reincarnations and even parallels between wars in the Soviet Union and the fantasy world. That’s not to say Valente doesn’t create some vivid scenes: she does, particularly when Marya lives in Leningrad during the blockade. In the end, of course, death is, says one character, “the only story.”

One other thing: I think Deathless may be a book that “reads” best in audio. Hearing Valente read at a local bookstore was a more satisfying experience than reading Deathless on the page. That’s not just because Longfellow Books offered tasty little cupcakes: I think Valente’s language and story lend themselves to listening, which makes the most of her writing. It also seems thoroughly fitting, given the oral roots of folk and fairytales.

Up Next: Oleg Pavlov’s Казенная сказка, which I’ll just call A Barracks Tale for now.

Image credit: Ivan Bilibin (1901), via Al3xil and Wikipedia.