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


  1. I am reading Evgenii Kliuev’s Андерманир штук now. What a weird book! It feels like a collection of a few small books in one - and not in a good sense.

  2. Dolgormaa, I agree: Kliuev tried to cram too many books into one! It's too bad because some of it is pretty good.

  3. Karamzin of course was also known and mocked for his florid sentimental style. On the more serious note, he invented a whole slew of modern Russian words and expressions, borrowing heavily from French. In Russia he's most remembered for one-liner answer to "What's going on in Russia?" - "Воруют..." (thieving...) and "Russia has two problems: fools and roads" - "У России две беды - дураки и дороги"

  4. Steven, ah yes, that sentimental style! I think one of the reasons I have fond memories of reading Karamzin years ago is that his language is fairly easy. Then there's my odd fascination with sentimentalism... As for the neologisms: according to Wikipedia, we have Karamzin to thank for words like достопримечательность... of course his use of the word "воруют" is a little simpler!

  5. Karamzin actively reformed literary Russian languages away from the use of Old Church Slavonic words. By taking it closer to the spoken language he made it easier to read. Also he moved away from the "three styles" that were defined by Lomonosov and cumbersome German-oriented sentence structure to the easier and more fashionable French orientation. If you are interested in the details of Russian literary language development I would recommend this excellent book : Виноградов В.В. "Очерки по истории русского литературного языка XVII-XIX вв."

  6. Thank you for that great summary, Steven: I was kind of vaguely remembering Karamzin and his reforms when I wrote the post the other day and then when I wrote the comment earlier this morning. I have to admit that I wasn't a very attentive student in my history of Russian language course! (I also suspect that Lomonosov won more space in my history of language memory bank after my visits to Arkhangel'sk!)

  7. Lisa,

    may I suggest a few more names on K:

    Veniamin Kaverin with his adventure novel The Two Captains must be included as he is a household name. And his memoir Hello, Brother, It's So Hard to Write (Здравствуй, брат, писать очень трудно)is a wonderful homage to the most important literary group of the 20s, the Serapion's Brothers.

    Emmanuil Kazakevich should be mentioned. He was prolific, but probably best remembered for the war novel The Star (Звезда) and a ground-breakiing novel about Lenin The Blue Notebook (Синяя Тетрадь). Lenin there spends time and disputes with Zinoviev, a friend in 1917, but a non-person at the time when the novel was written.

    Daniil Kharms. The great absurdist short story writer. Don't know how you plan to deal with the Russian Х, put it under K or make a separate Kh section?

    Lev Kassil, one of the most popular children's writers and an influential editor. Author of 'Konduit and Schvambrania'.

    Antiokh Kantemir, the 18th Century poet, deserves a place for historical reasons.

    Katayev should also be mentioned for his 60-s-70s 'mauvist' novels, semi-autobigraphical: The Grass of Oblivion (Трава забвения), That Diamond Crown of Mine (Алмазный мой венец) and several others. He reinvented himself in the 60s and started writing in a modernist style. The Sail remains a children's classic, but his 'new prose' was and still is popular among the young intellectuals. As the editor of Yunost, he was the 'father' of the whole new generation of the 60s writers and poets, and in the 20s he gave his brother Ye.Petrov (Ilf&Petrov) the plot for The Twelve Chairs. Arthur Miller met Katayev in the 60s and left a harrowing account of them visiting Pasternak's grave in Peredelkino (Miller's book, In Russia).

    Vadim Kozhevnikov perhaps should be mentioned as a war novel author and editor of Zvezda journal at the time when Grossman's Life and Fate was seized by the KGB.

    Wonderful project, keep it going.

  8. Alexander, I always look forward to your recommendations, thank you! First I'll say that, yes, Х/Kh will have its own entry... though it may takes years to work that far through the alphabet. (I already know, though, that Kharms and Khemlin will certainly be in that post.)

    I had intended to mention Kazakevich in my list of writers to read: I have a book with his The Star and several other pieces that I keep meaning to read. I need to read some Kaverin one of these days, too. In fact, I was convinced I had a copy of Two Captains but couldn't find it when someone else mentioned it to me. Thank you, too, for the further recommendations for Kataev -- I'll have to check to see if any of them are for sale these days, though the electronic reader certainly makes it easier to fill in the gaps.

    Thank you again for spending so much time and thought on your recommendations for each new letter. They're always fun to read... and a good reference.


  9. Sashura beat me to it! The only name I have to add after his thorough list is that of Alexander Kuprin; he may not be much read these days, but his 1905 novel The Duel (Поединок) made him famous and was higly regarded, and (in the words of this site) "Kuprin was highly praised by his fellow writers and contemporaries of the time including Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Maxim Gorky, Leonid Andreyev and Nobel Prize-winning Ivan Bunin." I have a set of his works but haven't yet gotten around to reading him.

  10. the electronic reader certainly makes it easier to fill in the gaps.

    Which reminds me: is there an e-reader that can download freely available Russian texts from, say, Moshkow and display them as pages so I can read them like a book? That would make it worthwhile for me to get an e-reader, since reading entire novels on my computer screen isn't something I enjoy doing.

  11. @Languagehat, I use Sony PRS-950, with the PRS+ software installed on it, I can directly download books from sites like However, even basic Kindle, or Nook will be able to get you to read the downloaded books, one program I recommend is Calibre - free e-book management program, kind of like iTunes for ebooks. let me know if you need additional info, I'm a bit of a ereader geek and will gladly help you.

  12. Thanks, that's good to know, and if I actually get a reader (hmm, maybe for Xmas...), I'll take you up on it.

  13. having had a counsel elsewhere, I'm rushing to add
    Vladimir Korolenko, highly regarded by both, the old Tolstoy and the young fire-brand Gorky. Chekhov and Korolenko both resigned from the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences in protest against the expulsion of Gorky in 1902. He was a powerful early civil rights activist in Russia, but he should be remembered as a very good writer too. Despite his opposition to the bolsheviks he had been appreciated during the Soviet period and many of his quotes are in school anthologies and dictionaries, a proof of the 'good' use of Russian. I'd recommed Makar's Dream and Without a Tongue short stories/novellettes. Gorky has an 'ocherk' (homage) about Korolenko.
    Kurkov The Death of a Penguin and A Matter of Life and Death. He is a well-established Ukrainian russophone writer. Lots of wit, gogolian 'laughter through tears'. Recommend.
    the poet Natalia Konchalovskaya a younger contemporary of Akhmatova. She is worth reading for her own merit, but also because she is part of one of the most influential cultural families in Russia, the daughter of the avante-garde painter Pyotr Konchalovsky, the wife of the poet, author of the three versions of the Soviet/Russian national anthem (30s, 70s and 2000s!) Sergei Mikhalkov and the mother of the two great film directors Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrey Konchalovsky (Andrei Rublev with Tarkovsky).
    and the slavophile brothers Kireevsky, Ivan and Pyotr, who contributed to the decline of the French cultural influence in the world and whose ideas still feed Russian nationalism.
    and of course I second Languagehat's Kuprin recommendation. Though I'd say his "Яма" (The Pit) novel from the life of prostitutes is as powerful as The Duel.

  14. Steven Lubman:
    do you know if there is a simple, legal way of making the Kindle read cyrillics?

  15. These people recommend the Kobo as a "no-frills casual ereader"; does anybody know anything about it (specifically, if it handles Cyrillic)?

  16. Wow, I went out for the day with visiting friends and came back to find a library of comments!

    Kuprin first: Like Sashura, I also thought Яма (The Pit) was very good. I haven't thought as highly as some of the shorter pieces (previous post) and haven't yet found the right mood to read Поединок (The Duel) but I'm sure I'll get to it one of these days.

    @Alexander: Thank you for the mentions of other writers! I'll have to look into Korolenko. I'm also glad to hear your recommendation on Kurkov... I've never had much luck finding his books for sale, in Russian, on my usual book sites. I'll need to figure something out.

    @Languagehat: When I looked at the kobo last fall it could not handle Cyrillic, though I think I read somewhere that it could be convinced to. That said, the newer models may read Cyrillic right out of the box. I've been reading with my jetBook lite this week and still like it. The price was certainly right ($75 with case) and I like that it uses regular AA batteries; I use rechargeables. It does have some quirks -- it doesn't like to search for text strings in PDF, has a somewhat faulty battery meter, etc. -- but it's just the right size for me, reads txt and PDF, and doesn't flash when the pages turn. And the overall reading experience is far better than I expected with an e-reader. I found Russian sites and reviews very helpful when I was researching readers (I think I just searched читалка)... but of course I didn't realize then how knowledgeable Steven is about readers!

  17. The price was certainly right ($75 with case)

    Good lord, that's half the price of a Kindle! If it handles Cyrillic and I can load books off Moshkow et al. onto it, I'll have to get one. Thanks very much for the recommendation!

  18. I cannot say anything about jetBook Lite, haven't tried it. I've played around using Kindle, Nook, Sony - major brands. Latest Kindle handles Cyrillic right out of the box. Sony and Nook support Cyrillic fonts embedded in EPUB and PDF files, but require simple installation of Cyrillic interface support to make Cyrillic visible in the book names. All information can be found at this site, and I can direct to forum postings with step-by-step instructions if you need them. Out of all three, of course, Kindle is the most popular in US, and has THE best customer service support from Amazon, they send you a replacement without any problems whatsoever, the best customer service experience I've had with any consumer product. Sony has the reputation for higher quality parts - metal, instead of plastic, and superior touch-driven interface but is much more expensive. Despite the price, it remains the most popular reading device brand in FSU. The Nook has the advantage of having Android as the underlying operating system, allowing for installing many external reading apps such as FBReader, which can handle FB2 format natively.

    No matter which device you choose I'd like to reiterate my recommendation for Calibre program to manage your ebook collection on your computer and sync it with your device.

  19. @Languagehat: Yes, the jetBook Lite handles basic txt files -- I use Журнальный зал pretty regularly, just copying and pasting. The reader is very, very basic and has no wifi capability, plus there are definitely oddities (e.g. use the Latin alphabet to name files) but it's all I need for occasional reading and the simplicity is a plus for me. Keep in mind, too, that it is relatively small -- I like that but some people might not. And the "manual" is very minimal. One other thing: my memory of the price was a bit off. I checked my original post and see that it was actually $85, with case and ear light. In any event, I bought at Newegg, which generally seems to have the jetBook cheapest prices; they also have lots of reviews so you can see all the device's pros and cons. Feel free to e-mail me if you have questions.

    @Steven: Thank you for adding all this information. I'm glad you mentioned Calibre; that reminded me that I have a Read Later account that I should use more often! The Sony looks very nice -- when I looked at readers in stores, I thought the Sony models seemed the most intuitive and best designed. They did also seem pretty sturdy.

  20. What a great thread of comments. I'm rushing to save some of these recommendations to my online shopping cart!

    [Anon Anne Marie]

  21. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Anonymous Anne Marie -- I hope you found some books to enjoy!

  22. Just wanted to let everyone know: I got a Kindle, and I love it! Many thanks to Steven Lubman for his patient help and explanations as I tried to figure out how to use it.

  23. I'm glad you're enjoying the Kindle, Languagehat, and that Steven was able to help you figure out how to use it. Have fun with all those online books!