Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year & Reading Highlights from 2011

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I hope 2012 bring you plenty of fun and absorbing Russian books to read, no matter what language you read in. Before we finish with 2011, I thought I’d write up a quick list of books I particularly enjoyed during the year:

Favorite book. I can’t decide on just one favorite, so I’ll name two, listing them alphabetically by author surname: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s The Interpreter (previous post) and Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair (previous post). Both books felt especially exuberant, with lively voices and structures, and subject matter that’s difficult to summarize. I think this must have been my year for books of this type: I also loved Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, which I read in Ross Benjamin’s German-to-English translation (post on my other blog).

Favorite newer release. I didn’t do so well with books released during late 2010 or 2011—an unusually high number of the year’s Big Book finalists were clunkers for me—but I did enjoy Iurii Buida’s Blue Blood (previous post) once I got past the first 50 pages and got used to Buida’s patterns. The book may be too quirky or collage-like (to borrow from Alexander Anichkin’s comment) for some readers but something (?) managed to win me over.

Favorite “what’s old is new” work. Andrei Platonov’s Juvenile Sea, sometimes Sea of Youth, (previous post) still rings in my mind… it’s probably those pumpkin sleeping pods. I think it’s safe to say that Platonov is my favorite writer who must be read slowly; I seem to read every paragraph at least twice. I love how Platonov arranges his words.

Favorite discovery. A few of Fazil’ Iskander’s Chik stories (previous post) and a novella (previous post) were enough to give me a new favorite writer whose stories I want to ration and read over time. I particularly love Iskander’s gentle humor and his ability to portray the everyday injustices of Soviet life.

Favorite work of nonfiction. I only read a few books of nonfiction this year but Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Human Soul: The Grandiose Propaganda of Stalin’s Russia (previous post), translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, was my kind of book, thanks to its combination of socialist realism and irrigation in the Soviet Union.

Travel. Book-related travel was a treat, a big highlight of 2011: I met a lot of you at the London Book Fair, BookExpo America, and the American Literary Translators Association Conference. I hope to see and meet more of you in 2012, particularly given the market focus on Russia at BookExpo America—I’ve already been excited about BEA 2012 for over a year! I’m sure I’ll be writing more about BEA when details are available.

What’s next? This isn’t book news, but I’m also excited about 2012 because I’ll be teaching first-year Russian at Bowdoin College next semester. I particularly love teaching first-year courses so am looking forward to getting started. As for reading, I don’t make resolutions but I am planning on at least one geographically based book sequence, beginning with St. Petersburg: some of Gogol’s Petersburg stories, Bely’s Petersburg, and perhaps Bykov’s Ostromov. I’m already thinking that a Moscow sequence might be fun for the second half of the year. I still have a clump of Shklovsky books on the shelf, too, just waiting for a mini-marathon.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for your visits, comments, book recommendations, and e-mail messages. It’s always fun to hear from you! I wish everyone lots of enjoyable reading in 2012… Happy new year!

Disclosures: The usual. Previous posts that I have referenced in this post contain further disclosure information about individual books and relationships.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Benigsen’s Rayad and Krzhizhanovsky’s Letter Killers

My last two book commentaries for the year—about Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Rayad) and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club)—feel all too typical of my reading in 2011, a year when I abandoned many books and finished others without particular enthusiasm. In this case, I finished both books but neither gave me quite the kick I might have hoped for…

Rayad, a novel about contemporary Moscow, borrows heavily from the detective genre: Benigsen begins with the murder of a man in a moviehouse then shows us an investigation carried out by a recent widower, Kostya. Kostya and his young daughter go to live in a clean, orderly, and slightly creepy all-Russian neighborhood in Moscow, where Kostya quickly meets Gremlin, the alleged perpetrator, a nationalist. Benigsen works in a series of faux historical letters, including one from V.I. Lenin himself, about Rayads, an invented nomadic tribe who once lived in Kostya’s new neighborhood. Of course corruption makes an appearance, too.

Rayad is competently composed and constructed, and it addresses timely sociocultural and sociopolitical issues, but I think Benigsen missed a chance to write a truly important book, a book that makes readers feel deeply uncomfortable. Though there’s a nasty scene on a train with Gremlin and his gang, it’s physical violence and we don’t know the victim. To my mind, the problem with Rayad is that Benigsen doesn’t go nearly far enough in exploring the psychology of nationalism in a way that would encourage readers to (re)examine their own beliefs.

Worse, Rayad’s characters and plot developments feel formulaic. Kostya’s family is half military and half intelligentsia, his new neighbor has problems because he’s not pure Russian, a neighborhood woman resembles Kostya’s dead wife, and so on. The term “Rayad” is particularly obvious because it sounds like an amalgam of the words for heaven and hell. By contrast, Benigsen’s ГенАцид (GenAcide) (previous post) is funnier, sharper, and more literary. Rayad reminded me of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, where Perrotta also failed this picky reader by backing away from an opportunity to write an important book; The Leftovers, too, lacked enough narrative tension and social spark to inspire introspection, rendering it mediocre “stuff.”

Nearly a century earlier, Krzhizhanovsky put literary tropes to use in The Letter Killers Club, a novella of sorts. Krzhizhanovsky frames five stories, setting them up by describing an apartment and the host of a club where members, each known by a monosyllabic nickname, recite stories from memory. I don’t want to spill many details but I’ll say that the leader, a writer, composed his books after having to sell all his books; he imagined his books and the letters on the pages, rearranging them to occupy emptiness. He says writers are “professional word tamers” (“профессиональные дрессировщики слов). (The English phrase is from Joanne Turnbull’s translation, which you can look inside on Amazon.)

I think my biggest difficulty with The Letter Killers Club is that I, a bit like the narrator, who’s an invited guest at the meetings, was more interested in buttonholing club members for a chat than in listening to their stories. More frustrating, the first tale, a playlet with characters from Hamlet and the eternal question and implications of “to be or not to be,” interested me far more than the remaining four, despite the appearance of my beloved carnival themes and an interesting science fiction take on mind control. Some of the stories just felt too long.

I think the most intriguing aspect of The Letter Killers Club stems from the opening scene, where Hermann Ebbinghaus is referred to as “мнемолог,” a mnemologist. The story and my book’s endnotes also mention Ebbinghaus’s use of “бессмысленные слоги” (“nonsense syllables”) in his research; Krzhizhanovsky’s club’s host uses Ebbinghaus’s term to refer to club members’ nicknames. Ebbinghaus used nonsense syllables in his research to remove associations with real words.

Of course associations develop, both in memory research and in the story: storytellers occasionally even borrow fellow club members’ nicknames for their characters, just as they, like their leader, borrow and reshuffle letters, syllables, and motifs from world languages and literatures. All the club’s storytelling (well, most of, but I won’t go into that) is from memory, playing on mnemonics; I have to think archetypes must have been helpful devices, too. (Festival of the Ass, anyone?) The Letter Killers Club gave my addled brain lots to think about last week when I had a nasty cold: my dreamy, floaty head probably got me further than a clear head could have.

I still have hundreds more pages to try in my collection of Krzhizhanovsky stories and novellas; despite the disappointment of The Letter Killers Club, I’m looking forward to reading more. I have the feeling (or at least the hope!) Krzhizhanovsky may be the kind of writer whose work takes time and patience, that ideas may seep from story to story, eventually accumulating in a way that begins to form a world or worldview. Joanne Turnbull’s translation of The Letter Killers Club, with an introduction by Caryl Emerson, is a recent release from New York Review Books.

P.S. Here are links to some pieces, most with more enthusiastic opinions than mine, that contain far more details about Krzhizhanovsky and The Letter Killers Club. Just watch out for all those details: I think the unexpectedness of the novella is one of its real virtues, so I was glad I knew almost nothing about it when I read.

Up Next: Favorites from 2011. And Dmitrii Dobrodeev’s Большая svoboda Ивана Д. (Ivan D.’s Big Liberty). And then a reading extravaganza—inspired by peculiarities of Petersburg and some of my translation work—is on the way. Why, I thought, just reread Bely’s Petersburg? I’m planning to start with Gogol’s Petersburg tales (or a selection of said tales, I’m not sure), move on to Petersburg, and then finish with something contemporary, probably Dmitrii Bykov’s Ostromov.

Disclosures: The usual. I received a copy of Rayad at the London Book Fair from organizers of the Russia pavilion. Thank you! I know New York Review Books from discussions of translation at book fairs. One other thing: that Amazon link is my affiliate link.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Trip Notes: Literary Translator Conference

It took me a few weeks to get caught up on my sleep and work (ouch!) after traveling to Kansas City for the American Literary Translators Association conference the week before Thanksgiving… here, at last, are a few conference highlights:

I don’t often write about films but want to be sure to recommend Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary (Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten) The Woman With the 5 Elephants to anyone interested in literary translation, Dostoevsky, and/or moral ambiguity. Jendreyko profiles Svetlana Geier, who left Ukraine for Germany during World War 2; the five elephants of the title are five of Dostoevsky’s long novels that Geier translated.

Jendreyko makes beautiful use of silence in the film, showing us Geier’s translation process—which includes dictating translations to a woman at a manual typewriter and, later, taking notes on the typewritten copy as she listens to comments and criticisms from a crustily endearing musician friend (see photo)—as well as her food shopping, cooking, and first trip to Ukraine in decades. Jendreyko’s film tells us that Geier’s father was a political prisoner and that Geier’s knowledge of German helped her leave the Soviet Union, but he doesn’t push her, at least on camera, to explain much about how she managed to go to Germany. Instead he cuts in scenes from a silent Crime and Punishment (Robert Wiene’s Raskolnikow, I believe), along with Geier’s comments on Dostoevsky and Raskol’nikov.

Though I’d dreaded the 9.30 p.m. screening time after a long day at the conference, The Woman With the 5 Elephants was so oddly suspenseful and puzzling that it kept me fully alert, awake, and even enthralled. I’m not sure what left the strongest impression on me—Geier’s occasional mischievous looks into the camera, uncertainty about her past, the silences, or Geier’s wonderfully old-fashioned translation techniques—but the film was well worth staying up to watch.

My personal highlights of the conference were reading from one of my works in progress, Konstantin Vaginov’s novella Бамбочада (Bambocciade) and reciting, from memory (eek!), Arsenii Tarkovskii’s brief poem “Портрет” (“Portrait”), in the original and in my own translation during the “Declamación” program. I’ve always thought of myself as a horrible memorizer but I can’t tell you how glad I am that Marian Schwartz urged me to take part. Declamacion was as fun as promised, and I particularly enjoyed hearing poems—e.g. Chinese arias—sung. I’m already thinking ahead to next year so I can prepare a poem that’s a little longer. There’s a lot to be said for memorizing a poem and reciting it in public.

A few other things to mention… Poet and translator Peter Golub gave me a copy of St. Petersburg Review (no. 3, 2009), a nicely produced thick journal of essays, fiction, poetry, and drama, with many pieces translated from Russian and Chinese… A few new releases from Russian-English translators: Marian’s translation of Andrei Gelasimov’s Жажда (Thirst) came out from Amazon Crossing last month… Psalms, Jim Kates’s chapbook of translations of psalms by Genrikh Sapgir, is out this December from Cold Hub Press… and Jamie Olson’s translation of Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak’s “Tale of How There Once Was a Fly Who Outlived the Others” (“Сказка о том, как жила-была последняя муха”) was published in the fall 2011 issue of Chtenia. Congratulations to all!

Bonus! The afore-mentioned St. Petersburg Review is one of the organizers of a poetry event on December 21 at 6 p.m. at the Cornelia Street Café in New York City. Host will be Alissa Heyman; poets Polina Barskova, Irina Mashinski, and Eugene Ostashevsky will read.

Up next: Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Rayad) and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club), then highlights of 2011.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Image credit: Site for Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Andrei Bely Prize Award Winners & Some Links

I’m about a week late and a ruble short on this one but want to mention winners of the Andrei Bely prize. Nikolai Baitov won the prose award for Думай, что говоришь (Think When You Speak or maybe Think Before You Speak), a collection of short stories. The poetry award went to Andrei Poliakov’s Китайский десант (Parenthetical information edited: please see comments... I’ll call this Chinese Landing Force, though an online bookstore calls it Chinese Descent. This title is (of course!) complicated since десант is usually a military landing or the troops who make them. I’m equally uninformed about these terms in English and Russian so suggestions are welcome.). Information on other Bely awards is available here. Just one of my rubles would endow this prize: that’s the value of the entire fund.

Bonus! Baitov is also a poet; some of his poems are available online in Jim Kates’s translations (Cardinal Points) (Jacket).

I learned about another award winner just before posting: John Woodsworth and Arkadi Klioutchanski won the Modern Language Association’s Lois Roth Award for a Translation of a Literary Work for their translation of Sofia Tolstaya’s My Life, published by the University of Ottawa Press. Woodsworth and Klioutchanski are both affiliated with the University of Ottawa. (press release) Thanks to the American Literary Translators Association for mentioning the award on Facebook.

I’ve run across a wealth of articles about Russian literature lately. Here are links to a few:

I always enjoy reading Russian Dinosaur’s blog but the two most recent posts were particularly engaging: the Dinosaur’s thoughts about The Collaborators, John Hodge’s new play about Mikhail Bulgakov, and a wonderful piece on a talk that Oliver Ready gave about translation. Oliver offered examples from Crime and Punishment, which he is translating, and the Dinosaur included one of the sentences, in the original and four translations. The blog called XIX век then followed with two related posts (here) and (here). XIX век is, by the way, written in English.

Last week Stephen Dodson, perhaps better known as Languagehat, opened the “A Year in Reading” series for The Millions with a post about Life and Fate. Life and Fate received more attention this week, through a review by Adam Kirsch on The New Republic’s site; the piece first appeared in Tablet. Also: The Quarterly Conversation published Malcolm Forbes’s essay about Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (in David McDuff’s translation); I still need to print this piece out so I can read it properly. (I also need to push Petersburg forward on my bookshelf… I’ve been intending to reread it for years.) Finally, Scott Esposito’s review of Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of Singing Caryatids, translated by Andrew Bromfield and recently released by New Directions, appeared on The National’s site.

Up Next: Trip notes about the American Literary Translators Association conference in Kansas City and Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Rayad), a novel about nationalism that feels a little formulaic... A year-end post with 2011 favorites is also on the schedule, and I’m planning to compile a list of new and upcoming translations. The latter will likely coincide with a presentation I’ll be giving at the Scarborough Public Library in late January—I’m excited to talk about some of the new titles at my town library!

It’s been an extraordinarily hectic fall—in lots of very, very good ways—but things seem to be settling back into a real routine, which means I’m getting back to my usual reading and writing habits. Thank goodness!

Disclosures: The usual.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Booker of the Decade Goes to Chudakov

The winner of the Russian Booker of the Decade was announced today: Aleksandr Chudakov won, posthumously, for Ложится мгла на старые ступени... (beginning) (end) (A Gloom Is Cast Upon the Ancient Steps). Время/Vremia, a Russian publisher, wrote on Facebook today that they are preparing the book for publication. The novel was a Booker finalist in 2001.
Rather than attempting to summarize yet another book I haven’t read, I’ll just say that the beginning of the book has been translated, by Timothy D. Sergay, who received a PEN Translation Fund grant and a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support his work. Chapter 1 is available (here) on Words Without Borders and Chapter 2 is online (here) on the PEN American Center site.
It’s been quite a week (a good one!) so I haven’t had much time to look at reactions to the award but I’ll add some links and thoughts over the weekend.
Up next: American Literary Translator Association conference notes and (I think) the Andrei Bely prize winners.