Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Jumble: Two Books, One Coven, and Six Literary Award Finalists

I took a break last week after a rather bloody incident involving a grater, a chunk of Pineland sharp cheddar cheese, and a middle finger. Now that I’m back to full typing capacity, despite an occasional twinge in the finger, here’s a jumble of a post to get me caught up…

I’ll admit that last week I was more than happy to procrastinate writing about Sergei Nosov’s Грачи улетели (The Rooks Have Flown/Left/Gone): in keeping with the jumble theme, The Rooks is a nearly indescribable jumble of characters, places, and motifs. Nosov tells the story of three old friends—a teacher, a typewriter repairman and watchman, and a former flyswatter salesman and would-be artist(e)—in three non-chronological sections. Much of the book is set in St. Petersburg, which lends itself to some nice passages about changing names and times. And references to Dostoevsky. And peeing off a bridge.

I thought The Rooks worked particularly well when Nosov examined contemporary art—one of his characters makes a wonderful trip to the Hermitage and stares in the abyss of Malevich’s glassed-in Black Square—and the fine lines between art and life. The section set in Germany, where the flyswatter salesman and would-be artist lives for a time and hosts the other two for a painful visit, felt less successful because it felt, simply, too long. Despite some structural misgivings, Nosov won me over with atmosphere, love for St. Petersburg, and a tone that avoids the cloying and preciousness thanks, in large part, to tart commentary on contemporary art and culture. The epilogue contains developments that brought varying degrees of surprise and showed how little we may know our friends and literary characters. It also cemented my interpretation of the book’s title as a reference to fall, playing off the name of Aleksei Savrasov’s painting of rooks that have returned in spring.

Iurii Trifonov’s Обмен (The Exchange) is a lovely jumble, too, a long story about family that blends past and present, private and public: Trifonov focuses on Viktor Dmitriev, whose wife Lena wants to arrange an apartment exchange so they (and their daughter) can live with Dmitriev’s mother, Ksenia, who is horribly ill. The description of The Exchange in Neil Cornwall and Nicole Christian’s Reference Guide to Russian Literature is so good and detailed (even if it’s cut off!) that I’ll just focus on impressions. I think what struck me most about The Exchange was the grayness of Dmitriev’s Soviet-era existence: his daily routine, his past affair with a co-worker he thinks would have made a better wife than Lena, and, of course, disappointment. Everything is beautifully observed and described though I find this sort of quiet—or perhaps muted and repressed?—desperation even sadder than the harsher chernukha of the post-Soviet era. I mean that as a statement of respect rather than a criticism. Particularly since I have to think there’s a reason Trifonov chose to include that cesspool.

File:Oxford City Birdseye.jpg
Oxford from the air... must get up early enough to see city before coven...
On another note, I’m very excited about Translators’ Coven: Fresh Approaches to Literary Translation from Russian, a weekend workshop I’ll be attending at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, next month. I’ll be chairing a roundtable discussion about publishing and translations, and speaking on a panel about translating dialogue in drama. The week after the workshop, there will be a series of events about poetry translation at Pushkin House in London. A huge thank you to Oliver Ready and Robert Chandler for organizing all this. It’s a wonderful chance to learn and get caught up with London-based colleagues. I can’t wait!

Speaking of which… Pushkin House launched a new book award, the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, “to further public understanding of the Russian-speaking world, by encouraging and rewarding the very best non-fiction writing on Russia, and promoting serious discussion on the issues raised.” I’m always vowing (and, generally, failing) to read more (okay, any!) book-length nonfiction that complements my fiction reading, so the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize short list, which covers a wonderfully broad assortment of topics, is a convenient place to start looking for candidates:
  • Anne Applebaum: The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956
  • Masha Gessen: Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
  • Thane Gustafson: Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Fortune in Russia
  • Donald J. Raleigh: Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Post War Generation
  • Karl Schlögel: Moscow, 1937
  • Douglas Smith: Former People: The Last Days of Russia’s Aristocracy
FYI: Languagehat has posted about Soviet Baby Boomers and Moscow, 1937. Moscow, 1937 sounds particularly fun…

Reading Levels for Non-Native Readers of Russian: Medium for both the Nosov and Trifonov books.

Writer Names in Russian: Сергей Носов and Юрий Трифонов.

Up Next: A novella (or two?) by Victor Pelevin.

Image Credit: Oxford City Birdseye from SirMetal, via Wikimedia Commons.


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