Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Jury Speaks: 2011 Big Book Award Winners

I’d like to thank the 2011 Big Book jury for making it easy for me to write this post. This year’s Big Book readers and jury chose the same book—Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book) (previous post)—as their big winner. The jury gave second prize to Vladimir Sorokin’s Метель (The Blizzard) (previous post), and Dmitrii Bykov’s Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) took third.

After enjoying Fazil Iskander’s stories about a boy called Chik (previous post), I was happy to see that Iskander won this year’s special award “за честь и достоинство” (“for honor and merit/virtue”). A big, thick collection of Iskander’s stories about Sandro of Chegem is on my shelf—not far from Bykov’s big, thick novel about Ostromov—waiting for that winter moment when I desperately need a long book. (I’m glad to have options: I’ve recently been resisting a fifth reading of War and Peace…)

Big Book also recognized Peter Mayer, of Overlook Press and Duckworth, for his contributions to literature. Overlook’s list of fiction translated from Russian over the last several years includes Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Interpreter (tr. Arch Tait), Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (tr. Marian Schwartz), Today I Wrote Nothing, a collection by Daniil Kharms (tr. Matvei Yankelevich), and several novels by Max Frei (tr. Polly Gannon, Ast A. Moore). Nonfiction titles include Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Soul: The Grandiose Propaganda of Stalin’s Russia (tr. Sam Garrett), which I enjoyed very much (previous post). Overlook has owned the Ardis list since 2002.

For more:

Up Next: Booker of the Decade, trip notes from the recent American Literary Translators Association conference, and maybe something about Aleksei Varlamov’s Купол (The Cupola or The Dome), though I’m finding the book rather inert, largely because of the dearth of dialogue.

Disclaimers: The usual. I should note that I always enjoy speaking with Peter Mayer and his Overlook colleagues at events during and around book fairs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Big Book Readers’ Choices & Tolstoy Event in NYC

Just a quick post for today, to let you know that three books were chosen as reader favorites as part of the Big Book Prize program: Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book) (previous post), Dmitrii Bykov’s Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood) (previous post). Readers voted online. I, unfortunately, forgot to vote.

I probably would have voted for Blue Blood, which I enjoyed very much despite a rough start. None of the books felt like sure winners or enduring favorites to me, though I certainly understand the appeal of Letter-Book… which I also enjoyed very much despite a rough start. I’m going to keep trying Bykov’s Ostromov in hopes of catching it when I’m in the right mood: it looks good but I think it’s asking to wait until the depths of winter.

Over all, despite some decent books, this year’s shortlist didn’t give me big favorites like last year’s, where I loved both Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs (previous post) and Gigolashvili’s The Devil’s Wheel (previous post). I thought two other, very different books – Pavlov’s dark Asystole (previous post) and Zaionchkovskii’s almost-light Happiness Is Possible (previous post) – were also very good for very different reasons. I’m curious to see which book wins the jury prizes next week particularly since several – those by Bykov, Slavnikova, and Sorokin – have already won major awards.

And a quick note on an event in New York City: on Friday, December 2, 2011, The Coffin Factory and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will host a reading and discussion of Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy: A Russian Life at 192 Books, 190 10th Avenue. The book, which was released in early November, is a 560-page biography of Lev Tolstoy. The event, scheduled for 7-8:30 p.m., has a listing on Facebook here.

Up Next: Trip report from the American Literary Translators Association conference, winners of the Big Book jury prize and the Booker of the Decade, and, eventually, Veniamin Kaverin’s Открытая книга (Whether I think this is The Open Book or An Open Book remains an open question…).

Disclaimers: The usual. And of course I still want to translate Senchin’s Yeltyshevs

Sunday, November 13, 2011

At the Heart of Buida’s Blue Blood

Iurii Buida’s latest novel, Синяя кровь (Blue Blood), is so filled with literary allusions, peculiar characters, and odd happenings that the book took some getting used to: on the first page, for example, a fly-catching elderly actress with the not-so-common name Ida gets up when the clock rings three in Africa. All this in a Russian town called Chudov, a name a little longer than чудо (miracle or wonder) and a little shorter than чудовище (monster). I’m glad the book and I came to terms after about 50 pages. Once I settled into Blue Blood, it became, by far, my favorite among this year’s Big Book Award finalists (previous post). I’ve read (or attempted to read) all the books on the list, though have yet to give Dmitrii Bykov’s Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) the real college try.

Africa, it turns out, is the name of the building where Ida lives: it was formerly the bordello known as Тело и дело—two rhyming words that mean body and deed—where Ida’s mother worked. Ida’s nephew, whom she calls Friday, narrates the book, telling stories about Ida, whom Buida based on actress Valentina Karavaeva. Meaning Blue Blood is a fictionalized, quirkily embroidered biography of Karavaeva filtered through a (fictional?) character’s childhood and adult observations. The nickname Friday, by the way, is just one piece of a series of references to Robinson Crusoe; Kirill Glikman’s review on OpenSpace.ru focuses on that element of Blue Blood.

“Actress” sounds glamorous but Ida’s life is filled with pain: a brief marriage to an Englishman, an accident that ruins her film career by making her face look like a broken plate, the Stalinist repression, and the sudden appearance of a former husband’s wife and child. As Ida likes to say, “От счастья толстеют.” – “Happiness makes you fat.” She eats little and smokes 10 cigarettes a day, something memorable because of Friday’s habit of repeating lists of objects important to characters. Here, Glikman recognizes something from Robinson Crusoe (which I haven’t read) but Friday’s tic reminded me of repetition in fairy tales, particularly given the proximity of characters with names like Baba Zha. Blue Blood also contains dark, Soviet-era transformations of fairy tale elements identified by Vladimir Propp. Among them: Ida leaves home, returns home, handles numerous difficult tasks, and marries. There is villainy on many levels, and there is even a kiss (from a general, no less) worthy of the one that awoke Sleeping Beauty.

Buida also works in references to higher literature. Dostoevsky stood out for me, perhaps in part because I’ve been reading Netochka Nezvanova: one night I read from both books, and a chapter in each ended with a cliffhanger involving fainting. Beyond that, Buida offers a mention of people униженные и оскорбленные (often translated as humiliated and insulted), a child called Grushen’ka, and a character likened to a Dostoevskian pleasure-seeker. Beyond Dostoevsky, Ida plays Nina Zarechnaia in Chekhov’s Seagull. The name Zarechnaia (on the other side of the river), certainly suits Ida, who is clearly her own person, her own myth. One more: Ida recites Romeo and Juliet for hospital patients, improvising as needed, thus emphasizing characters’ storytelling powers as she tells of tragedy and suffering, something she says benefits those who come after us… I read this in a broad context—the family of all humanity—since Ida is childless and Buida populates his novel with orphans and broken families.

The metaphor of blue blood also flows through the novel: in short, Ida’s actress friend Serafima tells her red blood is hot and makes the head spin with ideas, but cooler blue blood is a more controlled, self-possessed mastery, “Страшный Суд художника над самим собой”—an artist’s self-imposed Judgment Day—something Serafima says is both a gift and a curse. It can freeze.

Buida’s novel is also a gift and a curse, though it’s my favorite kind of literary curse, a book that contains so much to consider, feel, and cross-reference that it doesn’t let me go or lend itself to quick analysis. The long list of big topics I’ve left uncovered includes death (e.g. Ida’s work with girls who release doves at funerals), purpose in life, a touch of something gothic, Chudov’s “Pavlov’s Dog” café, nightmares, and acting, which has subtopics like mimesis and a list of Ida’s various names and roles. Ida’s roles include parts she plays in her personal home movie archive as well as “Ida,” a name she selects for herself as a child instead of going through life as Tanya.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3.0/5.0 or so, moderately difficult. I found the book’s oddities more challenging than its language.

Up next: Dostoevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova and Kaverin’s Открытая книга (The Open Book or maybe An Open Book, I’m still deciding…), which has been a perfect (relatively) light book to take slowly at a time when I’ve been distracted by a confluence of work deadlines, a cold, and preparation for this week’s American Literary Translators Association conference. I may write about that, too, we’ll see.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NOSE Award Finalists for Winter 2011-2012

I guess it really is award season: yesterday the Andrei Bely and Booker of the Decade short lists came out, today it’s NOSE. The NOSE Literary Prize people from the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation announced their list today at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair. NOSE prizes will be awarded in late January 2012 during a talk show. Here’s the short list in Russian alphabetical order:
  • Andrei AstvatsaturovСкунскамера (Skunkamera).
  • Nikolai BaitovДумай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak). Short stories (41 in 320 pages) from a poet.
  • Igor’ VishnevetskiiЛенинград (Leningrad), a novella set in Leningrad during World War 2 that Vishnevetskii says is a postscript of sorts to Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg because he imagined Belyi’s characters in his own book. For more: Svobodanews.ru interview with Vishnevetskii here.
  • Dmitrii DanilovГоризонтальное положение (Horizontal Position). (previous post) The OpenSpace.ru news item about the short list notes that its Krasnoyarsk correspondent says this book was added to the list by "experts."
  • Nikolai Kononov: Фланёр (The Flâneur), a novel set in the 1930s and 1940s. (OpenSpace.ru review)
  • Aleksandr Markin: Дневник 2006–2011 (Diary 2006-2011), Live Journal posts from Russia’s first LJ blogger. Comments on Ozon.ru note Markin’s interest in German literature and European architecture.
  • Viktor Pelevin: Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы (Pineapple Water for a Beautiful Lady), a bestselling story collection.
  • Maria Rybakova: Гнедич (Gnedich), a novel in verse about Russian poet Nikolai Gnedich, the first Russian translator of The Iliad. Rybakova is also a poet. Excerpt
  • Mikhail Shishkin: Письмовник (Letter-Book). (previous post)
  • Gleb Shul’piakov: Фес (Fes or Fez, as you prefer), a novel. The publisher’s description says Fes is about a man who brings his wife to the maternity hospital then, when left to his own devices, ends up in a basement in an unidentified eastern city… sounds like another case of warped reality. [Update on January 31, 2012: Oops! There was a mistake in the shortlist I used to compile this post... Fez was initially on the list, then removed.]
  • Irina Iasina: История болезни (Case History) appears to be a memoir about having multiple sclerosis.
News Bonus: Emanuel Carrère’s Limonov, a French-language book about Eduard Limonov, won Le prix Renaudot; it sounds like it straddles genre lines for biography and novel. Here are two news items: Russian and French (scroll down a bit). The Wikipedia entry on Carrère notes that he is the son of Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a historian who has written extensively about Russia and the Soviet Union. I still have her Decline of an Empire. The Soviet Socialist Republics in Revolt on my history/poli sci shelf.
Up Next: Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood) then Dostoevsky’s Неточка Незванова (Netochka Nezvanova).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Booker of the Decade & Bely 2011 Short Lists

Today was a big day for Russian book award short lists… Here are two quick bleary-eyed, late-evening lists [with a few next-morning edits]:

First, the Russian Booker of the Decade, for which a huge panel of past judges chose five books out of the 60 that were shortlisted over the past 10 years. The winner will be announced on December 1. The five finalists, in Russian alphabetical order, are:

  • Oleg PavlovКарагандинские девятины, или Повесть последних дней (A Ninth-Day Wake/Party at Karaganda or A Story of Recent Days/Commemoration in Karaganda). This is the third book in the trilogy that begins with Казенная сказка (A Barracks Tale), which I wrote about here. Pavlov’s novel is the only book on the list that has won a Booker.
  • Zakhar PrilepinСанькя (San’kya), which I wrote about here. I have a strong preference for Prilepin’s Грех, (Sin) (previous post), which won the SuperNatsBest earlier this year, but San’kya has often been cited for its political significance.
  • Roman SenchinЕлтышевы (1) (2) (The Yeltyshevs) (previous post), one of my favorite books of recent years [one I’d like to translate], a novel that was short-listed for everything but hasn’t won an award.
  • Liudmila UlitskayaДаниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) won the Big Book award a few years ago. I enjoyed the book very much when I read it several years ago (previous post). Daniel Stein came out in translation, from Overlook Press, earlier this year.
  • Aleksandr ChudakovЛожится мгла на старые ступени... (beginning) (end) (A Gloom Is Cast Upon the Ancient Steps), a complete mystery to me. Words Without Borders describes the book as a “memoiristic novel” and says Chudakov wrote “widely admired memoirs of such leading Russian literary scholars as Viktor Shklovsky, Viktor Vinogradov, and Lidia Ginzburg,” plus five books and a couple hundred articles.

Now for the Andrei Bely prize short list, for which winners will be announced on December 2… fortunately there is overlap with the NOSE long list, so I can copy and paste a few of these.

  • Nikolai BaitovДумай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak). Short stories (41 in 320 pages) from a poet.
  • Igor GolubentsevТочка Цзе (Not sure… The Tsze Spot, The Tsze Point, Sharpening Tsze? [see first comment, from languagehat]), apparently a collection of very short stories.
  • Vladimir Mikhailov Русский садизм (Russian Sadism). ?
  • Aleksandr MarkinДневник. 2006-2011 (Diary 2006-2011), Live Journal posts from Russia’s first LJ blogger, who has interests in German literature and European architecture.
  • Denis OsokinОвсянки (Yellowhammers), a novella that has already been made into a film known in English as Silent Souls.
  • Pavel PeppersteinПражская ночь (Prague Night). I know more (but still not much!) about Pepperstein as a conceptualist artist and founder of “Inspection ‘Medical Hermeneutics’” than as a writer. A friend did mention enjoying Prague Night, though.
  • Мария Рыбакова -- Гнедич (Gnedich), a novel in verse about Russian poet Nikolai Gnedich, the first Russian translator of The Iliad. Rybakova is also a poet. Excerpt

The Andrei Bely award also recognizes other types of writing, including poetry and humanitarian research. I’m especially excited about the poetry category this time – the nominees are Polina Barskova, Alla Gorbunova, Vladimir Ermolaev, Vasilii Lomakin, Andrei Poliakov, Aleksei Porvin, and Ilya Rissenberg – because I met Polina Barskova at a wonderful poetry translation conference here in Maine last weekend. The title poem from her nominated collection, Сообщения Ариэля (Ariel’s Message), is available in translation here on Cardinal Points, and OpenSpace.ru has a video of Polina reading another poem (Соучастие (scroll down for text)). Even if you don’t understand Russian, it’s worth clicking through just to hear Polina’s voice and watch her expressions.

P.S. November 9, 2011: Melville House has a nice post on Polina Barskova that mentions her collections that have been translated into English plus some colorful background on the Bely Prize.

Up next: Iurii Buida’s Синяя кровь (Blue Blood).

Disclosures: The usual. I know Overlook Press from meetings in and around BookExpo America. And I still hope someone will decide they want to publish The Yeltyshevs!