Monday, October 24, 2011

M/М: Makanin, Mandel’shtam, and Co.

M turned out to be an unexpectedly prolific letter for favorite writers: I have one fiction writer and two poets to list, plus two literary helpers…

I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Vladimir Makanin and found more than enough to consider him a favorite. The very first Makanin line that I read, the beginning of the story “Сюр в Пролетарском районе”(“Surrealism in a Proletarian District”), got me off to a great start: “Человека ловила огромная рука.” (“A huge hand was trying to catch a man.”) (I used the translation in 50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories.) The sentence fit my mood and the story caught me, too; I went on to read and love Makanin’s novellas Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead) (previous post).

Later, Андеграунд, или герой нашего времени (Underground or A Hero of Our Time) (previous post) took a couple hundred pages to win me over with its portrayal of a superfluous man for the perestroika era but I ended up admiring the book. Not everything from Makanin has worked for me, though: I didn’t like the Big Book winner Асан (Asan) (previous post) much at all, the Russian Booker-winning Стол, покрытый сукном и с графином посередине (Baize-Covered Table with Decanter) didn’t grab me, and I couldn’t finish Испуг (Fear), which felt like a rehashing of Underground. Despite that, I look forward to reading more of Makanin, especially his early, medium-length stories. A number of Makanin’s works are available in translation.

More M writers: I very much enjoyed Afanasii Mamedov’s Фрау Шрам (Frau Scar) (previous post) and want to read more of his writing, and I’d like to explore Dmitrii Merezhkovskii and Iurii Mamleev more, too… I’ve read only small bits of both and would be happy for recommendations.

In poetry, I’ve always enjoyed Osip Mandel’shtam, whose acmeist poetry was a big part of my graduate coursework. “Адмиралтейство(“The Admiralty”) is a sentimental favorite, probably partly because it’s one of the first Mandel’shtam poems I read, partly because the Admiralty was a landmark for me when I spent a summer in Leningrad. Another: “Волк” (“Wolf”), which I analyzed a few years ago with a friend. I’ve also enjoyed reading Vladimir Maiakovskii, though I think I find him more memorable as a Futurist figure than as a writer.

As for the literary helpers: D. S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature has been with me since the early ‘80s, when I first started reading Russian literature in Russian. My little paperback is water-stained, falling apart, and dusty-smelling. But it’s a classic on the classics, and I still use it. I should also mention Gary Saul Morson, who taught War and Peace to me twice, first in an undergraduate course on history and literature that also covered Fathers and Sons and Notes from the Underground, then in a graduate course on War and Peace. I didn’t realize then how much he’d taught me about reading, writing, literary criticism, and carnival. One day (one year?) I will read all of his Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, in order, instead of picking up the book and reading random chunks, à la Pierre Bezukhov.

Up next: Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood), which I’ve been enjoying after a rough start with too many quirky names, then Dostoevsky’s Неточка Незванова (Netochka Nezvanova), which I’m reading as part of my preparation for speaking on a panel—with Marian Schwartz and Jamie Olson—at the American Literary Translators Association conference next month.

Image credit: Photo of Vladimir Makanin from Rodrigo Fernandez, via Wikipedia

Makanin on Amazon

Mandel'shtam on Amazon

A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 (an update I ought to buy [so the book doesn't make me sneeze]!)

Gary Saul Morson on Amazon

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Four Years with The Bookshelf

The cupcake is back, marking the end of my fourth year writing Lizok’s Bookshelf. With four years of blogging in the books (as they say) it was fun to take my annual look at a few trends on the blog, to see where visitors live and what brought them here. A few things have changed but there’s one constant: it’s always a pleasure to thank you, the readers who come here, for your visits and for the many recommendations, ideas, and pieces of advice you’ve offered, in blog comments, by e-mail, and in person.

I seem to say this every year but I’ll say it again: when I contemplated starting the blog four years ago, I never, ever would or could have thought that I would meet so many new friends and colleagues through The Bookshelf! It’s great to know there’s so much interest in Russian fiction.

Here are a few of my annual report statistics:

Geography. The countries with the most visitors never seem to change: United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, and Italy are still the top five countries. The top city has shifted, though, with New York and Moscow edging out London. I should point out, however, that Londoners take longer visits than New Yorkers or Muscovites. The next three cities in the top ten are Perm’, Milwaukee, and Oxford. There was a slight decrease in visits during summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

Popular Posts. The most popular post of the fiscal year was also a change: The Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature knocked the “Overcoat” post out of the top spot for the first time. Posts about Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag and Pushkin’s Belkin Tales were, respectively, the third and fourth most popular for the year.

Common and Odd Search Terms. Common terms first: Variations on Elena Chizhova’s name continue to come up often, and the Russian Booker Prize is also a draw. Other popular combinations for searches included Oleg Pavlov’s Asystole, the afore-mentioned Drawings from the Gulag, and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line. Several translators’ names come up regularly, too, and many readers come looking for information on award winners beyond the Booker.

This fall brought fewer odd searches than previous years but here are a few:

  • Lizok’s Bookstore: This one, which came up quite a few times, makes me happy, if only because I sometimes wish I did own a bookstore. Other visitors continue to come to the blog looking for bookshelves of various types.
  • I’m happy: Happy people visited from 10 cities, two in India, and eight others scattered all over the rest of the world. Numerous variations—e.g. happy face—popped up, too. The happy crowd gets funneled to a post about Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Happiness Is Possible.
  • First story of potatoes: I’m not sure what this person was looking for, but s/he was directed to a post about Oleg Pavlov’s Barracks Tale. Another book involving potatoes (fried, my favorite) is Dina Kalinovksaia’s Oh, Shabbat!, which I enjoyed very much, though I have yet to attempt making gefilte fish.

That’s it for this year’s annual report. Again, a big thank you—огромное спасибо—to all of you who visit The Bookshelf. I look forward to another year of reading, discussion, and, I hope, opportunities to meet more of you! Happy reading! Maybe next year I’ll actually bake some cupcakes.

Up Next: I’m not sure… Mikhail Lipskerov’s Белая горячка. Delirium Tremens hasn’t been holding my interest very consistently: it has some funny moments but feels too much like a rehashing of themes from other books about drinking and rough lives, like Moscow to the End of the Line and a couple of Vladimir Makanin’s books. I may just move on to Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood).

Cupcake photo: nazreth, via stock.xchng.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Totally: Novellas by Chukovskaya and Iskander

I first read Lydia Chukovskaya’s Софья Петровна (Sofia Petrovna) in the early ‘90s, when I lived in Moscow: it was one of six pieces in a collection called Трудные повести (Difficult Novellas) that also included Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit). My reading skills weren’t ready for Platonov then but I could read and appreciate Sofia Petrovna quickly, easily, without a dictionary. The novella was even more satisfying because I could tell Chukovskaya’s direct, unembellished language was the perfect medium for a story about a Leningrad widow whose son Kolya, an engineer, is arrested in the 1930s.

I appreciated Sofia Petrovna even more this time around, watching Chukovskaya unwind the story of Sofia Petrovna, a loyal Soviet citizen who becomes more and more unhinged trying to handle difficulties at work and the cruelly impossible task of finding her son. Chukovskaya experienced similar humiliations—she wrote the novella during November 1939-February 1940, after the arrest of her husband, which makes it even more remarkable—and demonstrates the effects of totalitarianism with painfully striking precision.

I’m thinking of totalitarianism in the second definition in my Webster’s New [sic: it’s dated 1981] Collegiate Dictionary—“the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority”—more than the first definition’s “centralized control by an autocratic authority” that creates the political concept. Chukovskaya’s novella is less about the system itself than its effects on the thinking and actions of regular people, represented by a circle of family and friends anchored by Sofia Petrovna. The book draws the reader into her psyche as Soviet life wears her down.

We hear Sofia Petrovna’s doubts about Kolya’s activity and friendships, experience her pain when her communal apartment neighbors say nasty things, and feel her deflation when she has brief audiences with government officials after waiting for hours, even days. As the novella continues and we witness her evolution from a happy, optimistic publishing house administrator to a recluse who barely eats, it’s not difficult to understand her confusion, her delusions, or her fears of everybody.

After Chukovskaya’s book I picked up a collection by Fazil’ Iskander and chose Сумрачной юности свет (The Light of Murky Youth) for one reason: at 75 pages, it was the longest piece in the book. I didn’t know the story was about an Abkhaz man, Zaur, whose father was shot during the Stalinist terror. Most of the story takes place when Zaur is an adult—there are mentions of Khrushchev—and the most vivid aspect of the story for me, perhaps because of my lingering thoughts on Sofia Petrovna, was the uneasy balance of private and public in Zaur’s life. That made the story feel like a later generation’s update on totalitarianism.

Iskander gives Zaur a childhood with public Stalin portraits and an adulthood that values privacy and individuality, whether he’s writing to the Central Committee about the need for more private farming or trying to find a place to be alone with his girlfriend. Though Iskander deftly blends believable characters with lots of telling episodes about required volunteer work, sneaking into forbidden places, police behavior, family pressures, and politics, the story felt a little lumpy to me. But that’s a minor complaint, what with the strong pull of the conflict between control and privacy (always a favorite), and Iskander’s ability to, like Chukovskaya, create vivid scenes, portraits, and stories out of simple words and complex human situations.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: Though I think the language in Sofia Petrovna is easier than the language in The Light of Murky Youth, I’d recommend both to readers looking for relatively easy novellas.

Up Next: Perhaps Mikhail Lipskerov’s Белая горячка. Delirium Tremens, which I began reading today at the beach. If I don’t like the book as reading material it may still have an honored place in my life and beach bag: it’s a paperback of the perfect size and thickness for killing the stinging beach flies that love to hover around my ankles.

Fazil Iskander on Amazon
Sofia Petrovna on Amazon

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Monday, October 3, 2011

2011 Yasnaya Polyana Awards

Winners of the Yasnaya Polyana Awards were announced today. Fazil’ Iskander received the “Contemporary Classic” prize for his three-volume Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem). Sandro of Chegem was a popular book among NOS-1973’s online voters earlier this year. Perhaps this is the sign I need to finally buy and read Sandro after enjoying some of Iskander’s Chik stories earlier this year (previous post).

Elena Katishonok won the “XXI Century” prize for Жили-были старик со старухой (Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife) (excerpt); Katishonok’s novel was a 2009 Russian Booker finalist.

At least some of Sandro of Chegem is available in translation, as are Iskander’s Chik stories. A description on says Katishonok’s book is a family saga about Russian Orthodox Old Believers set in the first half of the twentieth century.

Fazil' Iskander on Amazon

Жили-были старик со старухой on Amazon

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Universal Solvent: Kuznetsov’s The Circle Dance of Water

I felt like I should cue up Sister Sledge singing “We Are Family” (here’s the Oprah version) when I finished Sergei Kuznetsov’s Хоровод воды (The Circle Dance of Water): Kuznetsov’s novel is a family saga, an ode to family ties and history that examines birth, aging, flaws, and fear of death. Circle Dance is a 2011 Big Book prize finalist, and Kuznetsov’s readable tale of multiple generations in an extended family is big indeed, both in size, at 600 pages, and century-long scope, with family members who include a female sniper in World War 2, an NKVD agent, and an alcoholic artist. Thank goodness the book had a family tree.

Though I think The Circle Dance of Water is probably the most enjoyable of the seven Big Book finalists I’ve attempted so far this year, I also think it’s deeply flawed. Kuznetsov’s water theme, for example, expands to kitschy tidal wave proportions by the end of the book, thanks to an overdose of, yes, mysticism. In the beginning, though, the water theme flows smoothly through the lives of three main characters living in 21st-century Moscow. Nikita is a businessman with a custom aquarium business who is having an affair and a mid-life crisis but loves his depressed wife. Anya (née Elvira) is a shoe saleswoman and single mother who loves to swim. And Moreukhov is a formerly fashionable artist who goes on benders drinking alcoholic liquids.

I think Kuznetsov is at his best observing the lives of his contemporary characters. Nikita, for example, remembers having no money, when buying Danone yogurt made everybody happy. Now it’s caviar and Paris. In another scene, Dasha, Nikita’s much-younger mistress, looks at Nikita through the aquarium he built for her to decorate the apartment he rents for her. Nikita, with double chin and circles under his eyes, looks like a fish. And though I think Kuznetsov makes too much of Moreukhov’s obsession with movies, his choice of genre for his life, film noir, is absolutely fitting, even touching. With his heavy drinking, Moreukhov is a literary descendent of drinkers like Venedikt Erofeev’s Venya in Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line) and Vladimir Makanin’s Petrovich in Андеграунд (Underground) (previous post), among others.

As an artist and storyteller who values ancestry and the past, Moreukhov, who also happens to be Nikita’s half-brother thanks to an extra-marital relationship, represents artistic representation and license. To Moreukhov, film conveys the feel of other times, blending art and life… making it a logical next step for Moreukhov to generate stories about various generations of family members. Moreukhov is only one of Kuznetsov’s narrators, and Kuznetsov sometimes hands storytelling duty from one character to another on quick notice. This is far less confusing than it probably sounds, particularly if you’re warned. Kuznetsov also connects individual chapters, characters, and eras with common objects or gestures, such as entwined hands.

Kuznetsov works lots, lots more into The Circle Dance of Water: creatures from beyond, orphaned characters, single mothers, religion, fears of aging and commitment and death and water, reincarnation, bodily fluids, literary references, and so on and so forth. Kuznetsov handles lots of this material with considerable grace, energy, and emotion, so I was very disappointed--and almost a little shocked--to find that he ties everything up neatly, first with a chapter of new agey sacrifices, then with an epilogue that includes a chapter called “Хеппи-энд” (“Happy Ending”). It is the 107th of 108 chapters, apparently referencing the number of defilements in Buddhism. (I’m glad literary agency Goumen & Smirnova posted a brief blurb from Echo of Moscow that mentions 108 and the Buddhist connection…)

Though I agree with Echo’s assessment that the book is more “a history of human passions” than a story of individual characters, I thought Kuznetsov’s water-based methods evolved to be too obvious, too programmed, even too superfluous to create a graceful transition from individual characters to universal passions and values. I wholeheartedly agree with the blogger known as Заметил просто that (I’ll paraphrase) the book would have left a better impression if I/we hadn’t read it to the very end. Which is too bad: trusting us, the readers, more and leaving some of the mysticism and the water to the imagination might have transformed the book—which I looked forward to reading and found entertaining—into something far more moving and satisfying.

Up Next: Not sure… I started Sergei Soloukh’s Игра в ящик (The Box Game) yesterday and am not enjoying his writing, which has the consistency of yeast bread that never rose. I visited the Big Book page on to see what others thought and wasn’t surprised to find that both comments about The Box Game used the word жуткий (terrible, dreadful) to describe Soloukh’s writing.

Disclosures: Just the usual.