Sunday, January 26, 2014

News Digest: NOS(E) Award, Lists, UK Events, a Finnish Book &tc.

So many bits of news have accumulated over the last couple weeks that I think a news digest post is in order…

This year’s NOS(E)award went to Andrei Ivanov for Харбинские мотыльки (The Moths of Harbin), a novel about Russians in Estonia during 1920-1940. The novel will be released in book form at the end of February from Elena Shubina Editorial, an imprint of AST. (Unfortunately, only the first half of the book, published by the journal Znamia, seems to be available,officially, online.) Readers voting online opted for Mikhail Elizarov’s Мы вышли покурить на 17 лет (something like We Went Out for a Seventeen-Year Smoke). The short list for this past NOS(E) season is here.

There are (occasionally) times when I wish I lived in New York so I could attend certain readings and literary events and there are (occasionally) times when I wish I lived in London so I could attend certain readings and literary events. Right now I’m wishing for London, where Pushkin House will host two events with translator Oliver Ready. The subject on February 5 will be Vladimir Sharov’s Before and During, published by Dedalus; Sharov will participate, as will Philip Ross Bullock. On February 19, the topic is Crime and Punishment, published by Penguin Classics. Russian Dinosaur has already written a wonderful “Digested Dostoevsky” post about Oliver’s introduction to Crime and Punishment. I haven’t read Crime and Punishment since high school so all this makes me wonder about a reread, something I half-heartedly attempted years ago, before I started the blog… and before Oliver’s essay.

Speaking of new translations, it’s list time! I’m already working on the 2014 list of new translations, so I’d love to hear from translators and publishers with Russian-to-English translations coming out in 2014. For some instant list-induced gratification, here’s a link to a link where you can download the 2013 translation database, courtesy of Chad Post/Three Percent/Open Letter Books. As Chad notes, this is the first year the database, which covers all-languages-into-English, has listed more than 500 books.

I won’t write a full post about Daniel Katz’s novelish book Kun isoisä Suomeen hiihti, which I read in Vladimir Smirnov’s Russian translation, Как мой прадедушка на лыжах прибежал в Финляндию--the book is known as When Grandfather Skied to Finland in English--but I do want to mention it. Alas, the book doesn’t seem to exist in English translation, which is too bad because it’s a beautifully concise family saga of sorts telling the story of a Jewish family in Finland. Katz focuses largely on Benya, who’s originally from Polotsk, Belarus, and serves in the imperial Russian Army. Katz works a lot into this small book, covering Benya’s military school experiences and trumpeting mess-ups, World War 2 in Finland, and Jewish life in Finland. Though the book leans a bit more toward novel-written-in-stories than I generally prefer, I thoroughly enjoyed it thanks to Katz’s blend of dark humor (nicely rendered by Smirnov), Jewish storytelling, and aspects of Russian and Soviet life overlaid on a Finnish setting. The book has been translated into a bunch of languages (apparently nine?), including Polish, German, and Spanish.

A few other random items… I always enjoy the XIX век blog (which is, BTW, written in English) but especially lapped up two posts about the recent AATSEEL conference: one’s about Gothic novels, the other is about Russian biographies… I was pleasantly surprised a couple weeks ago to find not one but two pieces about Russian literature in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal: first there was Sam Sacks’s lengthy review of Andrew Bromfield’s translation of Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник, known in English as The Light and the Dark; Sacks also mentions Shishkin’s Maidenhair (Венерин волос), which Marian Schwartz translated into English. After reading Sacks on Shishkin, I found Leon Aron’s “Learning to Love Life on the Downslope,” about Pushkin’s “Elegy”. Weeks like that make me sorry my free six-month subscription to the WSJ will soon end… Finally, if you’ve always itched to read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s Что делать? (What Is to Be Done?) but just never seem to get around to it, well, you have no more excuses. Just drop by Wuthering Expectations and tell Amateur Reader (Tom) you’d like to join in his readalong, which looks set to begin in late April. I read an abridged translation of What Is to Be Done? back in grad school because the book was on my reading list. I remember rather enjoying it (despite numerous warnings) during a heat wave but have to admit I’m not sure if I’m ready to commit to reading the whole thing this spring. We’ll see!

Up Next: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina. Marina Stepnova’s The Surgeon. Denis Gutsko’s Beta Male, though I may set this one aside until I can get a paper version of the book: not all books lend themselves to electronic reading.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Road to Somewhere: Vagner’s Vongozero

I’ve always loved genre-bending fiction so it was no surprise to thoroughly enjoy Yana Vagner’s Вонгозеро (Vongozero), a novel about a road trip in a time of virus-based havoc. The combination of road story, psychological thriller, race for survival, horror story, and, yes, winter snow was a perfect antidote to holiday madness for someone (that would be me) who doesn’t much like shopping or Christmas carols.

Vagner’s narrator is Anya, a thirty-something woman who lives in a beautiful-sounding house outside Moscow with her husband, Sergei, and son, Misha. When a virus starts killing so many people—including Anya’s mother—that Moscow is quarantined, they decide to head for an isolated and very small house near the Russian-Finnish border. That decision is largely forced by Anya’s father-in-law, a domineering but inventive type, the sort of guy you want to tell you to get out of town and then want to have along for the journey, too. Over time and miles, their group grows to include Sergei’s ex-wife and their son, two rather annoying neighbors and their daughter, two rather annoying friends, a dog, and a doctor. They make for quite a caravan, particularly with all their supplies. (Of course I wondered from the start when the cigarettes would run out…)

It’s Anya’s narrative voice that made the story work for me: her honest (but not quite whiny) admissions about wanting to ride with her husband, disliking the neighbors, and just wanting to be alone (or not) thoroughly endeared her to me. Even better, Vagner’s writing is nice and plain, the sort of writing that looks easy to craft but just isn’t. Even better again, it’s the sort of writing that lets Vagner and Anya reveal characters’ motivations and tell stories rather than focusing on linguistic pyrotechnics that wouldn’t have fit the cold, snowy environment or the cold paradoxes of survival.

The miles roll out slowly in Vongozero, balancing bursts of excitement and quiet introspection. Some of the obstacles and difficulties are fairly standard—a serious injury that requires amateur medical assistance, some lone helpers who turn up at random, deserted cities, government malfeasance, a glimpse of certain death—but I think part of the fun of genre norms is observing individual writers’ variations on plot twists we’ve all seen many times before. Vagner also makes sure her characters have plenty of firearms from the start, so Chekhov’s gun is along for the ride, too, and Misha, a teenager, seems to become a man almost overnight. And did I mention snow? Winter fits perfectly in Vongozero, both as the season that always seems to symbolize the difficulties of survival (at least in northern climes) and harsh, cold realities, and as a beautiful blank white slate of a setting perfect for people setting off for what they hope will be a new life.

Disclaimers: After liking a Facebook post from Vagner’s literary agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova, mentioning that the Slovak translation of Vongozero had hit the e-book bestseller list in Slovakia, I received an electronic copy (Russian, not Slovak!) of Vongozero from BGS. I’d been meaning to ask for the book for several months just because it sounded like my kind of fun reading. One other thing: I didn’t know until I read Vongozero that it started off as an online book that Vagner posted to her Live Journal… it was eventually published by Eksmo, one of Russia’s largest publishing houses, after what BGS’s catalogue (PDF) calls “a heated auction among major Russian publishers.” The real disclaimer: I’ve translated excerpts for BGS and am working on a book by another of their authors.

Up Next: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina and Denis Gutskov’s Beta Male.