Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Big Book 2013 Long List

This year’s Big Book Award long list, which came out last week, looks like a good one: beyond the four books I’ve already read and enjoyed very much, there are a couple books I wish I’d bought in Moscow, plus a nice clump of titles I’m interested in. There are 36 books on the list, meaning it’s a bit way too long to include everybody here. But here are some notes:

Four books I’ve already read and loved, with English-language titles linking to previous posts:

Three more books—in addition to 2013 NatsBest shortlister Laurus—have already won or been shortlisted for other major prizes:
  • Maxim Kantor: Красный свет (Red Light, though “свет” can also mean “world,” so I suspect dual meaning here). A novel with lots of twentieth-century history. NatsBest short list.
  • Aleksei Motorov: Юные годы медбрата Паровозова (Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years). Autobiographical fiction that won the readers’ prize in the 2013 NOSE award.
  • Aleksandr Terekhov: Немцы (Germans). Won the 2012 NatsBest. On the shelf for ages!
The two books I regret not buying when I was in Moscow… though only mildly because both are available online, in slightly condensed journal versions:
Books by writers I’ve read and enjoyed in the past:
In a column posted to Izvestiia after the short list came out, critic Liza Novikova noted four books of “documentary prose”:
That’s only sixteen books… I’ve heard or read about several more, particularly Denis Gutsko’s Бета-самец (Beta-Male), Denis Dragunskii’s Архитектор и монах (maybe The Architect and the Monk), and Igor’ Sakhnovskii’s Oстрое чувство субботы (A Keen Feeling of Saturday: Eight First-Person Stories), but that still leaves nearly half the list.

A few other books are available online:
  • Elena Makarova: Фридл (Friedl, which a reader tells me is a diminutive for names such as Friedrich and Friederike... the character in the book is a woman but it doesn’t appear that her full name is in the text.). The online “title page” says this is a documentary novel, and the first page clearly shows a World War 2 setting.
  • Andrei Volos: Возвращение в Панчруд (excerpts) (Return to Panjrud). Volos, who is originally from Dushanbe, often writes about Central Asia. His agent’s site says this novel is about a poet in the Middle Ages.
  • Nikolai Klimontovich: Степанов и Князь (Stepanov and the Prince).
  • Anton Ponizovskii: Обращение в слух (For the Ears? I get the feeling of something intended to be heard…). The quick description from the publisher: a novel about Russia and the Russian soul. The book’s Web site doesn’t explain much more, though the journal intro says the novel includes actual interviews.
Disclaimers: The usual, for all sorts of commercial and collegial reasons.

Up Next: Sergei Nosov’s Грачи улетели (The Rooks Have Flown/Gone/Departed/Totally Left Town). One of you wrote and asked why I didn’t use “flown” in the translated title for this book… The Rooks Have Flown certainly sounds better than my versions! I think I was stuck because the title of the Savrasov painting referenced here is often translated as The Rooks Have Returned or The Rooks Have Come Back. I’m still figuring out how I think the title fits the book, which has something of a shock ending.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Plague and Apocalypse: Vodolazkin’s Laurus

Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Лавр (Laurus) combines lots of elements I enjoy in my fiction: a long-ago setting in the fifteenth century, guilt feelings, a focus on one ever-changing character, fear of apocalypse, curiously varied language, and, yes, even the bubonic plague. Best of all, to borrow from what one of you said about Laurus in an online conversation, the book is addictive. It just reads and reads and reads, drawing the reader through four “books,” sections that describe four stages—four separate lives, really—within the title character’s time(s) on earth, resulting in a simple structure that creates something akin to a life of a saint. 

What’s a bit complicated for my purposes here is that the title character is known by several names, frequently Arseny, so I’ll call him that, too. So many thematic elements thread through Laurus that I think I’ll approach the book through a few themes I particularly enjoyed rather than trying to explain who’s who and what happens… the result is a messy mishmash, but pretty much anything would feel awkward to me because Laurus feels so elegantly balanced and indescribably intimate.

The Plague and the Apocalypse. Why do the bubonic plague and the apocalypse fascinate me in fiction? I don’t know but I suspect it’s because they infect novels with existentialism via the threat of imminent death. Aloneness fits with them, too: Laurus includes children orphaned because of the plague. (Even Forever Amber, BTW, endeared itself to me forever because of the plague, and I’m not alone!) In Laurus, Arseny learns herbal healing from his grandfather, Christopher, and treats plague patients in neighboring villages, earning such a reputation that he’s commandeered by a prince. As for apocalypse, there are calculations for the end of the world. Death is ubiquitous, particularly since Arseny often lives, basically, on top of cemeteries. Also: the unchristened dead are scapegoats for all sorts of calamities.

Time and Reinvention. One of the most wonderfully jarring aspects of Laurus is the language Vodolazkin uses. I feel almost as if I should write “languages” since Vodolazkin mixes archaisms with contemporary language—dropping in thoroughly modern slang and bits of anachronistic historical and geographical information—to strangely good effect. Though it’s surprising to find a sentence that mentions that a monastery is located on the future Komsomol Square of Pskov, the out-of-time toponym reinforces Arseny’s thoughts that he lives outside of time. As Arseny tells his dead girlfriend, Justina, “…события не всегда протекают во временипорой они протекают сами по себе. Вынутые из времени.” (“…events don’t always flow in time… now and then they flow on their own. Pulled out of time.”). 

Time cycles around and around in Laurus as seasons and lives, with Arseny living through four “books” that cover phases that almost amount to four lives where he is, roughly, healer, holy fool, pilgrim, and monk. Toward the end, Arseny lives in a cave and loses track of years, though he still knows when it’s Sunday. He looks forward to being freed from time and decides the only word he needs to discuss time is однажды, a sort of “once” or “one day” word that reinforces the time when something happens, such as “Однажды он понял, что этого указания вполне достаточно.” (“One day he realized that this indicator was quite enough/all he needed.”) Vodolazkin also includes references to Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, adding another layer to the reader’s perceptions of the temporal setting of Laurus. Also: years are occasionally given in both Anno Mundi and Anno Domini, establishing parallel calendars.
Cathedral of St. John, Pskov.
And Lots More “Alsos”… Arseny’s friendships with Foma, a holy fool who saves Arseny more than once by explaining away Arseny’s erratic-seeming behavior (during his holy fool period), and with Ambrogio, an Italian who comes to Pskov and ends up as Arseny’s traveling companion for a trip to Jerusalem that includes travel through the Alps and a horrendous hurricane at sea… mystical scenes with a wolf… an assortment of apparent miracles… the importance of literacy and words, which can be fatal, as well as the greater and deeper importance of their meanings, something reinforced through Arseny’s many silences and Christopher’s written instructions about herbal medicine, documentation Foma tells Arseny he no longer needs because he treats patients by taking their sins onto himself… a multi-pronged “also”: the tremendous immediacy of Arseny’s relationships with God, himself, his sins, Justina, and nature… the occasional feeling of a Bruegel painting… lots of marginalia reading “ha ha” or “!!” and then, yes, tears at the end of the book even though I knew how it would end… and so on and so on… To sum up: Laurus’s closeness, which never felt claustrophobic, left me with the feeling I’d experienced a strange combination of medieval timelessness, agelessness, life, and death, all of which works inexplicably well thanks to Vodolazkin’s mélange of words.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: From average to very difficult, depending on what sentence you’re reading.

Disclaimers: The usual; I have multiple connections to this book.

Up Next: The Big Book long list will be out on Wednesday. Then Sergei Nosov’s very enjoyable Грачи улетели, which I guess I’ll call The Rooks Have Left or The Rooks Are Gone, to play on the title of Alexei Savrasov’s painting in which the rooks have returned. Then maybe some short stories that have unexpectedly come my way…

Photo Credit: Левкий, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

NatsBest’s 2013 Short List & The Poet Prize

If you’ve been looking for a chance to become a patron of the literary arts—make that the Russian literary arts—your chance has arrived… if, that is, you’d like to sponsor the Russian National Bestseller Award so the 2013 short list can yield a winner. That’s right: NatsBest narrowed its rather long long list into a short list yesterday but is looking for a sponsor to fund the prize. The NatsBest Web site says it will announce details for the 2013 “small jury” and finale if/when a sponsor turns up. Ouch.

So, with the hope that things work out, here’s the 2013 short list, which (of course!) contains a couple titles that are difficult to translate. I’ve included the points that the first jury awarded to each short-listed book.

  • Maxim Kantor: Красный свет (Red Light, though “свет can also mean “world,” so I suspect there’s some dual meaning here), 10 points. Kantor said in an interview last year (here) that the book is big, with three storylines (Russian, German, and British), and about twentieth-century history, including revolutions and wars. 
  • Evgenii Vodolazkin: Лавр (Laurus), 7 points. The only book on the list that I’ve read; I’ve drafted a post that I’ll finish soon. It’s especially hard to write because I loved the book… 
  • Il’dar Abuziarov: Мутабор (Mutabor, the Latin first-person singular future passive indicative of mūtō, according to Wiktionary, related to mutate and indicating change or transformation. “Mutabor” is used as a magic word in some stories, including Wilhelm Hauff’s “Caliph Stork.”), 6 points. This book is described as an intellectual chess detective novel, though Abuziarov sees it more as a political thriller. Either way, there’s a booktrailer
  • Sof’ia Kupriashina: Видоискательница (hmm, this title plays on the word for viewfinder, putting it in the feminine; it seems to lend itself to voyeuristic storytelling …), 6 points. This book is a short story collection. Kupriashina’s stories apparently often focus largely on society’s margins. But these stories aren’t, according to Kommersant’s Weekend commentator, chernukha. 
  • Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina: Власть мертвых (The Power of the Dead), 5 points. One NatsBest reader-reviewer, Mitya Samoilov, borrowed from the futurists and called this book a slap in the face of (the) public taste.  
  • Figl’-Migl’/Figgle-Miggle: Волки и медведи (Wolves and Bears), 5 points. A Petersburg novel.

Файл:Евтушенко Е. Автограф Харьков 20.04.1989 на книге где он соавтор. Выборы нардепов.jpgAs for the poetry award, reported yesterday that Yevgeny Yevtushenko won the Poet Prize. The Poet Prize is joint effort of the Society for Encouragement of Russian Poetry and Unified Energy Systems; this year’s award is a tidily funded $50,000. Lenta has more on the award here, in a commentary by poet Dmitrii Kuz’min, and Svobodnaya pressa has a piece by Vladimir Novikov here.

Disclosures: The usual.

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s Laurus, which I liked so much. And then Sergei Nosov’s very, very enjoyable Грачи улетели, which I guess I’ll call The Rooks Are Gone, to play on the title of Alexei Savrasov’s painting in which the rooks have returned.

Image: Yevtushenko’s signature, via Wikipedia.