Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Summer Nonfiction Roundup

It’s common knowledge around here that I don’t read a lot of book-length nonfiction… but I do sometimes read—and, yes, even enjoy!—the occasional book about Russian arts and culture. Here are some quick notes on three books I’ve read or been reading this summer:

Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Soul: The Grandiose Propaganda of Stalin’s Russia, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, is the kind of book that makes me want to seek out more nonfiction. Not only does Westerman address an odd combination of topics that interest me—Stalin-era control over writers, how writers handled said control, and irrigation in the Soviet Union—he also presents his material at a measured pace through intersecting narrative threads.

Much of the book concerns Kara-Bogaz, part of the Caspian Sea, telling of Westerman’s efforts to travel there to see the place Konstantin Paustovsky wrote about in his novel, Kara-Bogaz (he wrote the name as Кара-Бугаз), which was adapted for screen. Along the way, Westerman offers background on Paustovsky’s life and family, Maksim Gorky, Andrei Platonov, the nasty Belomor Canal junket for writers, plus various and sundry other figures and events connected with socialist realism and social control. I think Engineers of the Soul would appeal most to general readers with an interest in water issues, socialist realism, and/or Soviet-era authors. Don’t be surprised if I read Kara-Bogaz.

Valery Panyushkin’s 12 Who Don’t Agree: The Battle for Freedom in Putin’s Russia, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, also kept me reading. Though the book felt a little disjointed—each chapter profiles a person connected with the Russian opposition, which seems a little disjointed itself—I found lots of interesting chunks of recent history and updates on the Russia I knew in the 1990s. The portrait of Anatoly Yermolin, for example, includes bits on the so-called October Events of 1993, and Vissarion Aseyev’s story offers an account of what happened in Beslan in 2004.

One of the most affecting scenes is in the chapter on Ilya Yashin, who’s forced to get off a bus in the hinterlands during a blizzard, introduces an elderly, apolitical couple who take Yashin in for the night. When Yashin asks if they know the Yabloko party—or any other political party—the answer is “You eat and stop jabbering.” When Yashin presses a bit more and asks if they know the president, the man says, “Putin, I think?... Yeltsin’s over?”

Finally, there’s Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History, which I’ve been struggling with since one day last winter when the snow was so cold it sounded like Styrofoam under my feet when I went to the mailbox to find the book. I think my problem with Molotov’s Magic Lantern is that Polonsky travels so much, both around Russia and within her own mental filing cabinets, which are stuffed to bursting with names and stories related to history and literature. Though I read in small, manageable chunks and find lots of points that relate to my interests, the endless flow of data and constant zigzagging between historical periods and Polonsky’s thoughts sometimes gets so overwhelming and disorienting that I want to be a backseat driver and ask Polonsky to either slow down or let me out of the car. Despite all that, I’ve resolved that I will finish Molotov’s Magic Lantern. Polonsky’s visit to Staraya Russa—think Dostoevsky and The Brothers K.—was interesting, plus I’ve visited lots of the cities in the book and enjoy reading another traveler’s impressions of things like Cossack life outside Rostov-on-Don. My next stops include Taganrog, Arkhangel’sk, and Murmansk.

Disclaimers: A big thank you to the publishers of all the books—The Overlook Press, Europa Editions, and FSG, in that order—for supplying review copies. A big thanks, too, to Amy Henry of The Black Sheep Dances for requesting Molotov’s Magic Lantern for me from FSG. Beyond the usual disclaimers, I should add that I always enjoy speaking with Overlook, Europa, and Marian Schwartz.

Up next: I(rina) Grekova’s Кафедра (The Faculty) then Aleksei Slapovskii’s Большая книга перемен (The Big Book of Changes).

Photo credit: Space photography of Kara-Bogaz from NASA, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

“Horizontal Position, Sleep”: Danilov’s Diary-as-Novel, Horizontal Position

Dmitrii Danilov’s Горизонтальное положение (Horizontal Position), which I read in the abridged journal version published in Novyi mir, was a pleasant surprise: the beginning of the book looked completely unprepossessing to me when I first scanned through it online, with many of the very short sentences in the book’s first diary entry containing little more than street names and information about travel on public transportation.

But Danilov won me over. I’m sure it helps that his narrator and I are both corporate writers and have visited many of the same places, from Mytishchi to Arkhangel’sk to Russian Bookstore No. 21 in New York City. Far more important, though, was Danilov’s ability to fill—and connect—the diary entries with everyday material about the narrator’s work, travels, and downtime. Horizontal Position is a rare case of a book where brand names don’t irritate me. Danilov makes them feel almost anthropological: the narrator mentions Live Journal, Flickr, a Yankee cap, and even a Hummus Place restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (“вай-фай, ура!” – “wifi, hurray!”), pinpointing time and place with tremendously spare, repetitive language.

So what happens in Horizontal Position? An apparently single guy who turns 40 during the course of the book writes diary entries about life and his corporate work, much of it for the oil and gas industry. He travels for work, discusses taking a course in religion, and mentions literary pursuits. He rarely reveals much if something rattles or pleases him—he seems restrained, almost inert, at least in the text—even when he has an unhappy client. There’s some dry humor: I particularly enjoyed the passage when a client asks him to make a corporate text more artistic and lyrical. He tells us he plays an online fantasy (?) soccer game. He tells us what he does before he gets into a horizontal position to go to sleep, sometimes in uncomfortable beds. Countless entries end with “Горизонтальное положение. Сон.” – “Horizontal Position. Sleep.”

The key to Horizontal Position is the epigraph, from Iurii Mamleev’s “Серые дни” (“Gray Days”): “Но в общем все осталось по-прежнему и ничего не изменилось, хотя как будто и произошли события.” – “But for the most part everything remained as it had been and nothing had changed, though apparently some things had happened.” Sure, I know Danilov’s narrator reads Crime and Punishment and Sergei Samsonov’s Аномалия Камлаева (The Kamlaev Anomaly), listens to Splin, and eats a lot of hummus in New York because of the free Wifi. I even know, in excruciating detail, his Moscow travel routes.

Despite all those details, though, I don’t know much about the man’s ambitions. And you can probably tell that I don’t remember if he has a name or not… I could swear something gave me the idea he was a Dmitrii, like his creator, but now I can’t remember/find where I got that sense. But it suits me if the narrator is anonymous—or reveals but doesn’t want me to remember his name—since he stands in for all our days, weeks, months, and years that feel like we’re living in what a college friend thought of as personal human Habitrails, shuttling ourselves from place to place to do whatever we must. Meaning: I know nothing but everything about this guy. Blogger Заметил просто, who also doesn’t use a name for the narrator, refers to the guy’s limited choices, like taking one bus instead of another. (Hmm, this reminds me of something else…) And no matter where you are, at home, on a train, or in your сингл-рум (single room) on the Upper West Side, you’re likely to end up in a horizontal position at the end of the day unless, of course, you’re on a plane.

I should add that Horizontal Position is a 2011 Big Book Award finalist; I’ve now read four of the 10 books (Danilov, Slavnikova, Sorokin, and Shishkin) and abandoned one (Arabov). Horizontal Position is my favorite so far in terms of sheer readability. The diary form makes it easy to read one more entry, then another, and I enjoyed the narrator’s sneaky humor, even if I thought Danilov shouldn’t have let him spend so much time in New York. I forgave him when the narrator staged a minor rebellion toward the end, exhausted from all his travel and record-keeping.

Reading Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2/5, relatively easy. With its simple, repetitive, and often practical language, I think Horizontal Position would be a very, very fun book to teach. Horizontal Position is also an ideal book to read on an electronic reader.

Up Next: Кафедра (The Faculty) by I(rina) Grekova. I picked up Grekova after a disastrous attempt to read Leonid Andreev’s Sashka Zhegulev, which Stephen Hutchings called “singularly and significantly unsuccessful” in A semiotic analysis of the short stories of Leonid Andreev, 1900-1909. I wondered why Hutchings wasn’t more specific but then read the first 100 or so pages of the book and found such a stylistic and thematic morass that I’m at a loss to explain, too.

Image credit: Brainloc, via

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Train Spotting: Buida’s Zero Train and Astaf’ev’s Sad Detective

There are so many trains in Russian fiction—and history—that I suppose it’s not at all odd that I read, absolutely unintentionally, two short novels in a row with strong railroad themes. Come to think of it, both pieces also involve orphans, another common theme in Russian novels. The novellas: Iurii Buida’s Дон Домино, known in Oliver Ready’s English translation (from which I’ve quoted below using Amazon’s Look Inside! feature) as The Zero Train, and Viktor Astaf’ev’s Печальный детектив (The Sad Detective).

Beyond the common importance of railroad, difficult family situations, and social changes, however, the novellas couldn’t be more different. Buida’s Zero Train, a Booker Prize finalist in 1994, is an elegantly composed metaphysical portrayal of people whose lives are connected by a mysterious train that passes through their town each day. Despite allegory, the air of mystery, and odd happenings, I’d say The Zero Train’s tracks end before the Fantasy station. Astaf’ev’s Detective, dated 1986, tells of a policeman-cum-writer who’s retired because of job-related injuries; Detective felt like an uneasy blend of village prose (деревенская проза) and чернуха, that crushing naturalism I so often seem to read.

Descriptions of character and plot don’t go very far in explaining why The Zero Train appealed to me so much: in many ways, the railroad life of its main character, Ivan Ardabyev, known as Don Domino because he loves playing dominoes, isn’t especially remarkable. It’s the strange, punctual Train No. 0 that mattered most here, linking disparate characters who work on or watch the railroad and acting almost like a mirror as they wonder what the train carries and where it goes. Security forces are a strong presence: Buida gives Lavrentii Beria himself some ink and Ardabyev, whose parents were enemies of the people, has dealings with a security officer.

Ardabyev doesn’t just lack parents: he’s also told he has no past, no present, no beliefs in God or devils. He has only the Zero Train, a conveyance with a nihilistic number that Ardabuev himself resembles. Who are you if your parents have been x-ed out of existence under horrible circumstances and you have little real need for meaning? Ardabyev asks Fira, one of the women in his life, “А зачем он нужен, смысл?... Смысл только в нас, в тебе и во мне, и если мы так думаем, нет ничего другого, и смерти нет.” (“What do we need meaning for?... The only meaning is in us, in you and in me, and if that’s what we think then there’s nothing else, not even death.”)

Of course the biggest mystery of The Zero Train is the meaning of the train itself. The train’s odd existence represents life to the town’s residents and their curiosity about what’s at the end of the line reminds of curiosity about death and the afterlife. As Fira says to Ivan, “Что-то там есть. Иначе зачем же тогда Линия, зачем нулевой, зачем мы, зачем все это?” (“There must be something there. Or else what’s the Line for, the Zero? What are we doing here? What’s it all for?”) Ivan can only say he doesn’t know, the train reminds him of life. The ending of The Zero Train is ambiguous, as Oliver Ready notes in his afterword, and I think that’s part of my enjoyment of the book: Buida finds a nice balance of allegory, history, and reality, and has the good sense to write a short novel that reveals just enough about his people and his train to spin a wonderfully heady tale. I’m looking forward to reading more Buida.

By contrast, Astaf’ev’s Detective felt unbalanced and, well, sad, not just because the title character has had a difficult life and career but because I got the impression Astaf’ev couldn’t quite decide whether to write about life around a train station, life in the country, the work life of a policeman, or the personal life of a policeman. The problem isn’t one of space—all that could fit in one novella—but I don’t think Astaf’ev succeeds in linking his diverse people and stories into a novel(la), though everything’s a little too connected to be a collection of linked stories.

There’s some gritty material—for me, a crime committed with a pitchfork in a veal barn is the most vivid scene from the book—and there are lots of social and moral aspects of Soviet life about which to feel sad and mournful along with Soshnin, Astaf’ev’s title figure. The Sad Detective doesn’t just feel unfinished or underdone, it also feels like a piece a bit ahead of its time. Much of what Detective covers reminds me of later chernukha novels that contain similarly harsh realities but more cogent structures. I feel particularly mournful about The Sad Detective because I thought Astaf’ev’s Lyudochka was very good (previous post).

Up next: Dmitrii Danilov’s Горизонтельное положение (Horizontal Position), which I found oddly enjoyable.

Disclosures: Just the usual. I should add that Oliver Ready, whom I enjoyed meeting and hearing speak at the London Book Fair, also translated a collection of Buida stories, The Prussian Bride, for which Oliver won the Rossica Prize in 2005.

Image credit: Czech railroad track photo from tabery, via