Sunday, February 24, 2013

Snowy Day (Yet Again!) Potpourri: Two News Items & Two Books

First, two brief news items...

This year’s Prix Russophonie went to Hélène Henri-Safier for her French translation of Dmitrii Bykov’s Pasternak. Henri-Safier’s translation of Pasternak also won the 2012 Read Russia award, in the contemporary literature category. Further details about the Prix Russophonie are online here. Other finalists for the prize translated Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Girshovich, and a band of OBERIU writers.

Poet, translator, and publisher Maksim Amelin won the Solzhenitsyn Prize today. Several of Amelin’s poems are included in the bilingual collection Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Evgeny Bunimovich and Jim Kates; the book is from Dalkey Archive.

Now, two brief notes on books…

Konstantin Flavitskii's not-quite-real account.

Grigorii Danilevskii’s Княжна Тараканова (Princess Tarakanova where the princess word means a prince’s unmarried daughter, oy, oy, oy!) is an 1883 historical novel about the demise of pretendress Elizaveta Tarakanova, who claimed to be the daughter of Empress Elizabeth. Danilevskii tells his version of the story in two parts: the first is the diary of naval lieutenant Pavel Kontsov, who meets Tarakanova after he escapes from an Istanbul prison; his previous adventures include serving in the Battle of Chesma in 1770. True to his time, Kontsov tells his story as a confession of sorts, mentions Kheraskov (!), and experiences perils both sentimental and maritime. Kontsov writes his diary in 1775 on a ship, The Northern Eagle, stuffing the pages into a bottle that he tosses overboard during a storm he fears will wreck the ship.

Do not fear, dear readers: the bottle and the diary are, of course, found in the second half of the book! The second section, told in a rather bland third-person narrative, also includes scenes of the captured Tarakanova in Peter and Paul Fortress and a wrapping up of various loose ends from Kontsov’s story. Catherine the Great is also present. All in all, I wouldn’t say Princess Tarakanova is great literature but it made for moderately entertaining, easy reading on tired evenings. The highlight was Danilevskii’s nineteenth-century take on the eighteenth century.

An Armenian Sketchbook is Vasily Grossman’s Добро вам, literally Good to You, in a translation from Robert and Elizabeth Chandler; I read the Chandlers’ translation. Grossman wrote An Armenian Sketchbook about his 1961 travel to Armenia, where he went to rewrite a literal Armenian-Russian translation of a novel by Hrachya Kochar. Grossman hardly writes about the work, the writer, or the translator—I’ll admit this was, initially, a disappointment for me—but I found his descriptions of and reflections on things like Armenia’s stone (“Here, we were still in the Stone Age.”), poverty, history, and trout surprisingly absorbing. In describing village life, for example, Grossman catalogues certain residents’ criminal activity and I scribbled in the margins that the passage reads like true-life чернуха, that dark naturalism I’ve mentioned so many times before.

Robert Chandler and Yuri Bit-Yunan’s very helpful introduction to An Armenian Sketchbook notes the “deeply personal” and spontaneous nature of the writing in Sketchbook and mentions that Grossman was, at the time, in the early stages of cancer, which caused him physical difficulties that are detailed in the book. Mortality is a frequent motif and in one scene, after some heavy drinking, Grossman writes, “At this point I realized that I was dying.” He describes some of these sensations—his “I,” for example, separating from his physical body, and aloneness—then, two pages later writes, “If the world were not so beautiful, the anguish of a dying man would not be so terrible, so incomparably more terrible than any other experiences.” Grossman closes Sketchbook with some lovely descriptions of a wedding that culminates, at least in Grossman’s account, in a dance with candles. Two of his last lines are, “Probably I have said much that is clumsy and wrong. But all I have said, clumsy or not, I have said with love.” I think it’s that love, along with the spontaneity that Chandler and Bit-Yunan mention in their introduction, that appealed to me so much in An Armenian Sketchbook.

Disclosures: The usual for the news items. I received a copy of An Armenian Sketchbook from the publisher, New York Review Books; I am collaborating with Robert Chandler on a story by Andrei Platonov for a collection that NYRB will publish.

Up Next: Ekaterina Sherga’s The Underground Ship, which just took an interesting turn. And maybe favorites from the letter R… we’ll see.


  1. Nice post.This book was so lovely.It should have been translated in different languages.Very informative and thrilling.French translation or in any translation it would be a blast.Translating book shows the rich blend of knowledge and culture in a society.It is important that books written in a foreign language since it helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region.

  2. Read a review recently of An Armenian Sketchbook, looks like a wonderful read, despite the complete indifference he had for the job he was there to do.

  3. It is a lovely book, clairemca! And the translation reads very nicely.