Sunday, June 16, 2013

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: S Is Splendid

The Russian letter С—S in the Roman alphabet—is a bit of a traffic jam for good writers. Though I don’t seem to have any S-starting favorites that I’d defend to the last letter, there are lots and lots of writers I’ve read in moderation and enjoyed enough that I look forward to reading more of their work. I’ll list some of them here. NB: I’ll address the letters Ш and Щ, which transliterate as sh and shch, later in their own posts.

Classics first, where Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Господа Головлёвы (The Golovlyov Family or The Golovlyovs) is one of the most supremely painful and masterfully claustrophobic books about family I’ve ever read. It was almost physically difficult to read. Highly recommended! Then there’s Fedor Sologub, whose Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon) I’ve enjoyed twice, first in translation, later in Russian. It’s a wonderfully fun and diabolical symbolist novel (previous post) with characters who enjoy, among other things, tearing at wallpaper. I also remember enjoying some of Sologub’s poetry in grad school.

As for contemporary writers, there are so many S scribes I’m not sure where to start. Roman Senchin comes first, I think: everything I wrote above about The Golovlyovs applies to Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs (previous post), a novel about a family that moves to a village from a regional center. Senchin’s The Information, about a young superfluous man in Moscow, is also painful and claustrophobic, good in a different way even if it takes some time to engage with. Then there’s Marina Stepnova, whose Lazar’s Women (previous post), a family saga with twists of пошлость (poshlost’) and postmodernism, was a finalist for last year’s major awards, winning two third prizes from Big Book. I’ve also enjoyed some of Stepnova’s short stories and am looking forward to her Surgeon.

Though it feels strange, I have to acknowledge Vladimir Sorokin, whom I’ve come to appreciate, though we got off to a bad start with Ice not long after I start writing the blog (previous post). I pretty much swore then that I wouldn’t read more of the Ice trilogy… but I broke down and read the next book, Bro, (previous post) and am now even curious about the third. As I wrote at the end of my post on Bro, “It’s taken me a few years and a few books to edge into Sorokin’s world.” My favorite Sorokin book is A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik (previous post), a short novel that describes a future Russia that feels rather like the Middle Ages.

I’ve enjoyed lots more books by S-starting writers, from Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (previous post) to Aleksandr Snegirev’s Vanity (previous post) and Petroleum Venus (previous post)… and I have lots more books by writers with names beginning in S on my shelves, notably from the Brothers Strugatsky, whose world I have yet to find a way to edge into. As always, I’m open to reading ideas.

Compass Translation Award Announcement: For all you poetry translators out there, the Compass Translation Award has extended its 2013 deadline for entries to July 15. This year’s poet for translation is Maria Petrovykh. Information about the award is here. If you’re as unfamiliar with Petrovykh as I, Wikipedia can help, thanks to Languagehat, who wrote the Petrovykh entry after enjoying reading her work.

Disclaimers: The usual, for writers and agents. I’ve translated a Senchin story and excerpts from The Yeltyshevs.

Up Next: A trip report about the Translators’ Coven in Oxford and poetry translation events in London. And I’m finally reading Maya Kucherskaya’s Тётя Мотя, which literary agency Elkost is calling Auntie Mina. I loaded Auntie on the Nook for my trip but already started reading: I’m finding it perfect for my scattered frame of mind because it’s an old-fashioned long novel focusing on characters and their situations in life. That feels soothing right now, with so much going on.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Yasnaya Polyana Long List & Rushed Reading Roundup

The Yasnaya Polyana award announced long lists for its XXI Century and Childhood, Adolescence, Youth prizes last week. The XXI Century list contains some familiar names from recent short lists: Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina’s Маленький человек (A Little Man), Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Лавр (Laurus), Andrei Volos’s Возвращение в Панчруд (excerpts) (Return to Panjrud), Maksim Kantor’s Красный свет (Red Light), Evgenii Kliuev’s Translit (which won a second in the Russian Prize), Maia Kucherskaia’s Тетя Мотя (Aunt Motya), Anna Matveeva’s Подожди, я умру — и приду (Wait a Bit, I’ll Die and Then Come Back… or thereabouts), and Sergei Soloukh’s Игра в ящик (The Box Game). The only longlisted books I’ve read thus far are Vodolazkin’s Laurus (previous post) and Roman Senchin’s Информация (The Information) (previous post). Yasnaya Polyana’s long list contains 41 books, many written by writers I’ve never heard of, let alone read… which is what I appreciate about long lists. A news item from April 30, 2013, notes that Yasnaya Polyana received 163 nominations: 105 were for the XXI Century category and 58 were for Childhood, Adolescence, Youth. Of those titles, 41 made the XXI Century long list and 22 made the Childhood, Adolescence, Youth long list.

Nonfiction isn’t my thing but I can’t help but mention that the Просветитель (Educator/Enlightener) award recently announced a long list, too. Two titles caught my eye: Sergei Beliakov’s Гумилев сын Гумилева (excerpts) (Gumilev, Son of Gumilev) in the biography category, and Maxim Krongaus’s Самоучитель Олбанского (I’ll go with Teach Yourself Olbansky). Beliakov’s book is already a finalist for the 2013 Big Book award.

Reading Roundup: My attention span has been painfully short during this long season of translation deadlines, travel preparations, and achingly beautiful weather… which means I’ve been reading more short fiction than usual and tossing more books aside than usual. (This also makes me fear various types of mistakes...) I find it horribly difficult to write about short fiction without retelling or spoiling entire stories but do want to note a few I’ve enjoyed. First off, a comment from Elena Bochorichvili prompted me to seek out “Волшебная мазь” (“The Magic Ointment”), a lovely story about a Georgian family that was first published in Novyi mir. Bochorichvili uses repetition beautifully as she blends together World War 2, the legacy of Stalin, family dynamics, and a mulberry tree. I didn’t want “The Magic Ointment” to end. (Ah, the heartbreak of good short stories!) Earlier this year, a friend brought me three books of by Aleksandr Furman that are part of a four-book series called История одного присутствия(“The Story of One Presence”). The books tell, chronologically and from a close third-person perspective, of the Soviet-era childhood of one Aleksandr Furman. I’ve read sections from the beginning of each book and share my friend’s puzzlement about how to describe the appeal of their chapters/stories. Furman doesn’t seem to write soft-focus tales of happy childhoods: my scattered reading may be very skewed but parental comfort seems largely absent in a world filled with threats. The first piece in the second volume details a long, scary-sounding hospital stay and the second tells of a sexual predator; the first piece in volume three describes the teenaged Furman’s stay in a psychiatric hospital, where he seems to feel more comfortable than he’d felt “outside.” Something about Furman’s tone, though, is accessible, even welcoming. I’ve been enjoying reading the books out of order; this seems to be something of a habit for me. Finally, I’m officially giving up on Leonid Iuzefovich’s Князь ветра (Prince of the Wind), the inaugural National Bestseller winner, after reading 249 of 347 pages: though I enjoyed Iuzefovich’s first two historical detective novels (previous post) about Ivan Putilin, a based-on-a-real person police inspector, I found Prince of the Wind too densely stuffed with historical detail and background on Mongolia to read well. The underlying story here is good, involving murder, family dynamics (again!), the possible sale of a soul to the devil, and, yes, observations about Mongolia, but the book felt terribly out of balance to me. Alas.

Up Next: A continuation of the Favorite Russian Writers series, in which I move on to the letter S. Then a trip report on the Translators’ Coven and poetry translation events in London. And, eventually, Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century, a collection of stories translated and selected by Muireann Maguire. I haven’t read all the stories yet but can already say I particularly enjoyed Aleksandr Chayanov’s “Venediktov,” where I marked the line “Thoughts of diabolical encounters persecuted me relentlessly.” The combination of chits for souls and an atmosphere reminiscent of Russian sentimentalism is a winner for me.

Disclaimers: I’ve translated fiction by Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina, Evgenii Vodolazkin, Roman Senchin, and Vladislav Otroshenko, who’s a member of the Yasnaya Polyana jury. I received books by Aleksandr Furman from a friend who, if I remember correctly, obtained them from the author for me. The Overlook Press sent me a copy of Red Spectres; translator and story selector Muireann Maguire acknowledged me in the book for reading a draft of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Phantom,” a story that thoroughly creeped me out even when my main focus was language… Thank you to all! 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

NatsBest Thrown to the Wolves… and Bears

RIA Novosti reports that the writer known as Фигль-Мигль (Figl’-Migl’/Figgle-Miggle) won the National Bestseller award earlier today for her novel Волки и медведи (Wolves and Bears). According to RIA Novosti, the jurors split their votes between Wolves and Bears and Maxim Kantor’s Красный свет (Red Light), leaving honorary jury chair Lev Makarov to split the tie. Update: A June 3 article from offers more detail on voting: Kantor and Figgle-Miggle each had two votes, spurring the tie-breaker. has more, here

Figgle-Miggle reportedly accepted the award wearing large sunglasses, thanking the jury but declining to identify herself with a more conventional name. (Articles from June 3 include photos of the author without her glasses...) Her pseudonym is the singular of фигли-мигли, which sounds like figgly-miggly and which the Oxford Russian-English dictionary translates as “tricks.” When Figgle-Miggle’s Ты так любишь эти фильмы (You Love Those Films So Much) was shortlisted for the NatsBest in 2011, one of this blog’s readers suggested the English word “flimflam” as a possible translation. You Love… lost a tiebreaker vote to Dmitrii Bykov’s Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Update: Wolves and Bears was submitted to NatsBest as a manuscript but should, apparently, soon be out in book form.

Up Next: A mishmash of short stories? Leonid Iuzefovich’s Prince of the Wind? Or maybe letter S favorite writers?