Sunday, February 23, 2014

We Are Family: Buida’s Poison and Honey

Yuri Buida’s Яд и мёд (Poison and Honey) is a busy novella that left me with the strange feeling I’d just spent years trapped as a guest after a dark, extended house party: Poison and Honey focuses on a house and a family, the Osorins, covering lives, ambitions, and deaths, including murder most foul. Buida manages to weave together what sometimes feels like legions of characters and an entire history book of world culture, creating a compact, packed story that’s realistic, mythical, and metaphysical. It’s also strangely enjoyable and even more strangely suspenseful.

Buida’s first-person narrator is Semyon Semyonovich, who’s not, by blood, an Osorin but who becomes part of the extended family when his grandfather, a physician’s assistant, brings him to the Osorins’ house as a little boy. The house, which is set on a hill (of course), is sometimes known as the House of the Twelve Angels. The house is magnificent (of course), and it contains, among other things, statues and paintings of naked women, a set of twelve (hmm1) bronze figures of horsemen, a cat named Sophie Auguste Friederike von Anhalt-Zerbst (hmm2), and a matriarch known as Tati. Semyon becomes a long-term member of the extended household after Tati invites him back to play with her nephews: when the book ends, decades later, Semyon is working with the family’s archives, making him a sort of inside outsider. Semyon chronicles Osorin family history, too, as the narrator of Poison and Honey, telling of overdoses (Quaaludes, which I didn’t realize were known as “disco biscuits” before Ecstasy, hmm3), affairs, careers in literature and intelligence, and, of course, numerous enmities.

Everything changes in a very big way at the house on the hill when Ilya (son of one of Tati’s nephews) slides off an icy road, hits a young woman named Olga Shvarts, and then brings her home. Olga’s unhurt, at least initially: she stays at the house until she winds up dead (and naked) a few days later. Olga’s the (arche)typical outsider in many ways, someone who wants to become part of a house and family like the Osorins’, with its chiming clocks, heraldry, and old glory. After Olga’s death, Tati interviews members of the household, and Semyon duly describes the proceedings… until, that is, his wife gives birth during the night. Buida references Agatha Christie as well as Dostoevsky as he describes the interviews. One alibi is a bank robbery.

When Semyon returns the next morning (It’s a boy!), the whodunit aspect of the story has been resolved, at least on a certain level, though the identity of the killer isn’t revealed. I loved the breakfast scene. Everyone sits down to a usual breakfast—salads, sandwiches with ham and cheese, somewhat stale bread, butter, tea, and coffee—but the family is wearing nice dresses and suits, and the table is set with a white table cloth, crystal, and silver. There’s even Champagne. And then the resolution to the murder is announced.

Poison and Honey is thoroughly lively and oddly lovely, in part because the pace is brisk and Buida works in so many references to history and culture, much of it Russian, folding in lots of high society and low doings. Like murder most foul, in its literal and literary senses. One of the central elements of Poison and Honey is clearly homes, homelessness, and uprootedness: toward the end of the novella, Tati tells Semyon that Russians are only truly at home in church and at war, after all, they might lose their homes because of war, arrest, and fire. Tati, however, wants her family to keep living in her house—where the clock will continue to chime and people will continue discussing the Russian idea—for hundreds of years. This, after all, is a house where artists, musicians, writers, and dissidents discussed everything from the Prague Spring to Solzhenitsyn.

For all that talk about the family and the house, though, just about everyone in the Osorin household seems supremely unhappy, though I admit many of the family members and hangers on glopped together in my mind, perhaps because all the unhappiness, affairs, and treachery glopped together in my mind, too. That’s probably as it should be since this family—like the circumstances surrounding Olga’s murder—feels so hermetically sealed in at The House of Twelve Angels that the issue of who’s who as an individual feels almost as irrelevant as the issue of who-really-dunit in an atmosphere where guilt feels collective.

I should note that the book Poison and Honey contains the novella I read plus a clutch of stories, collectively known as “chronicles,” about the Osorin family. I only read the novella but want to buy the book, on paper, to revisit the novella and read the stories. Poison and Honey is the kind of book I can easily lose myself in if I read electronically but that I want to reread on paper, to pick up more detail.

Disclaimers: I received an electronic copy of Poison and Honey from Elkost, Buida’s literary agency. Thank you, particularly since your timing was perfect! Plus the usual.

Up Next: The Belkin Award, for which Poison and Honey is a finalist, translations coming out in 2014, and whatever I start reading this evening.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

NatsBest’s 2014 Longlist

The National Bestseller Award announced its longlist last week: 48 books were nominated by an assortment of publishers, literary agents, writers, editors, critics, and other assorted characters. NatsBest added a new category this year, too: Нацбест-начало (literally NatsBest Beginning), an award for writers under 35. The longlist for that award apparently includes 12 writers.

Here’s a summary of some of the nominees for the main award, including the names of the nominators…

Books nominated more than once:

  • Vladimir Sorokin’s Теллурия (Tellurium), nominated by writers Ksenia Buksha and Igor Sakhnovsky: A polyphonic novel in 50 highly varying chapters. I read about 150 pages before setting Tellurium aside: Sorokin’s use of a futuristic medieval setting, tiny and huge people, kinky stuff, sociopolitical observations, and a novel (ha!) psychotropic agent all felt way too familiar after Day of the Oprichnik, The Blizzard, and The Sugar Kremlin. I’ll be the first to admit that Tellurium is clever, funny, and insightful at times but, to paraphrase that bass player I once knew, I just didn’t feel like I was getting any new information.
  • Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Рыбы молчат по-испански (Fish Keep Quiet in Spanish ), nominated by writers Maria Arbatova and Anna Matveeva: A novel about international adoptions of Russian children. (For more on this title, which is known as Children of Rogozhin in English: Elkost literary agency)
  • Evgenii Chizhov’s Перевод с подстрочника (excerpt) (literally Translation from a Literal Translation) nominated by critic Lev Danilkin and writer Leonid Yuzefovich: A novel about a translator who goes to an invented country with a name ending in –stan to get some literal translations of poetry that need to be translated into real Russian. This one sounds busy but interesting.

Books by writers who’ve already been translated (book-length) into English:

  • Sergei Shargunov’s 1993, nominated by writer Vasilii Avchenko.
  • Gleb Shulpiakov’s Музей имени Данте (chapters) (Museum Named for Dante), nominated by poet Maxim Amelin.
  • Roman Senchin’s Чего вы хотите? (What Do You Want?, albeit in a slangier version, like “Whataya Want”), nominated by critic Natalya Babintseva.
  • Eduard Limonov’s Апология Чукчей (Chukchi Apologia? The Chukchis’ Apologia?), nominated by critic Vladimir Bondarenko.
  • Vladimir Sharov’s Возвращение в Египет (excerpts 1 & 2) (Return to Egypt), nominated by writer Evgeny Vodolazkin.
  • Valery Paniushkin’s Отцы (Fathers), nominated by publisher Iulia Kachalkina.
  • Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina’s Маленький человек (The Little Man), nominated by writer Igor Savelyev. The Little Man will be out in Melanie Moore’s English-language translation this spring, from Glas; the author’s name on the cover is Liza Alexandrova-Zorina.
  • Svetlana Aleksievich’s Время секонд-хэнд (Second-Hand Time?), nominated by critic Vladislav Tolstov.
  • Ilya Boyashov’s Кокон (The Cocoon), nominated by Konstantin Tublin.
  • Anna Starobinets’s Икарова железа (The Icarus Gland), nominated by Artyom Faustov of “Vse svobodny”. This book, “a collection of speculative stories,” will be coming out in English translation in 2014, from a new publisher, Skyhook Press.
  • Elena Kostiukovich’s Цвингер (Zwinger), nominated by publisher Elena Shubina.

I have to admit I didn’t think that particular part of the list would be so long: I think the relatively large number of translated authors speaks to what I (and some other translators I know) see as an uptick in Russian-English translation activity.

A few others: one recommended, one written by a writer I’ve already read, the third randomly chosen by my mouse:

  • Miroslav Nemirov’s Большая Тюменская энциклопедия (The Big Tiumen Encyclopedia?!), nominated by Maxim Semelyak: Writer Dmitry Danilov, whose recommendations usually work well for me, mentioned on Facebook that he liked this book, which isn’t, alas, yet out in book form.
  • Yana Vagner’s Живые люди (Truly Human), nominated by literary agent Natasha Banke: This is a sequel to Vagner’s Vongozero, which I enjoyed very much.
  • Vsevolod Nepogodin’s Французский бульвар (French Boulevard, a real place in Odessa. Ukraine.), nominated by writer Anna Kozlova.

I could go on and on but won’t… it’s snowing yet again (with, good golly, more snow allegedly on the way early next week), which is as good a reason as any to finish up, have some dinner, and read by the fire. Besides, the NatsBest shortlist will be announced in two months, on April 17!

Up Next: Yuri Buida’s Poison and Honey, a finalist for the Belkin Prize, which I’ll be writing about when the winner is announced later this month. I’m also planning to start a new and semi-regular series of posts about some of the many, many translations I receive. A reminder: I’m compiling a list of translations coming out in 2014 so be sure to send me titles you’d like listed.

Disclaimers: The usual; I’ve translated, collaborated with, and/or met a number of the people mentioned in this post.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reading and Sochi: May the Games Begin!

A reader sent me a note last week asking for book recommendations to complement the Olympics: he specifically asked for thoughts on books translated into English, preferably about the Caucasus. Here are some thoughts, most of which are fiction… with a few other items thrown in for fun. I’m sure I’ve missed plenty so will look forward to comments with other ideas. Alas, the closest I’ve ever been to Sochi is Krasnodar, where I spent a couple days in the nineties. When my co-worker and I left the Krasnodar airport we were accosted by taxi drivers wanting to take us to Sochi. Very tempting, since we were going to a seminar on agriculture.

Classics in the Caucasus: My first thought for the list was Mikhail Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, which I’ve loved each time I’ve read it (previous post) over the past 25 years or so. It’s wonderfully old but modern, plus the title is much played-upon in contemporary Russian fiction. Then there’s Lev Tolstoy, who wrote lots of fiction involving the Caucasus. One of the three books Andrew D. Kaufman mentions in an Olympics-related piece for NPR is Tolstoy’s short novel Hadji Murat, a good choice with a setting in Chechnya, though it’s never been a favorite of mine. For a Caucasian theme, I’m more partial to The Cossacks, though admit I’ve only read it once or twice, in translation, many years ago. For something shorter, there’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which was adapted into a film in the 1990s, Sergei Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains, with a change in temporal setting. I’ve enjoyed the story and the movie several times. Other classics include Alexander Pushkin’s poem “Prisoner of the Caucasus.” If prose is more your thing, there’s A Journey to Arzrum, which is often described as a “travel narrative.” If neither of those appeals, the stories in The Belkin Tales are all-time favorites (previous post). Everybody should read Pushkin!

Contemporary Fiction: My first thought among contemporary writers was Alisa Ganieva, who’s from Dagestan: her Salam, Dalgat! is a thoroughly enjoyable novella that won the Debut Prize for long prose (previous post). Salam, Dalgat! (translated by Nicholas Allen) appears in the Squaring the Circle anthology, which also includes two stories by Arslan Khasanov (tr. by Ben Hooson), a writer from Chechnya. Ganieva’s short story “Shaitans” is in the Read Russia! anthology (tr. Marian Schwartz), which also includes “Chechnya, to Chechnya,” a chapter from Sergei Shargunov’s A Book Without Photographs (previous post) (tr. John Narins) and “The Day When You Phone the Dead,” by German Sadulaev, (tr. Anna Gunin). Shargunov’s book is now available in English translation from Glagoslav (tr. Simon Patterson), though most of the book focuses on Moscow. Two books by Sadulaev are also available in translation: I Am a Chechen! (tr. Anna Gunin) and The Maya Pill (tr. Carol Apollonio), though the latter doesn’t sound like it’s about the Caucasus, at least not any real place. Last but not least: I’ve only read assorted stories by Fazil Iskander—most about a boy known as Chik—but I recommend him very highly (previous post). Lots of readers have recommended Iskander’s Sandro of Chegem stories; I have a big, thick fat book of them on the shelf, just waiting for a dreary day when nothing else feels right.

And then…: I can’t resist adding Valentin Kataev’s Time, Forward!, a socialist realist novel I read and enjoyed before I started the blog: even if the record to be broken is for concrete production rather than, say, skiing, this is, as the title indicates, a decent novel about speed. I read Time, Forward! in preparation for leading a workshop on Soviet-era fiction and wrote this in my notes: Most interesting here is the way that characters talk about concrete production like some people today talk about Johnny Depp: constantly and passionately. I didn’t love this book but I did find it oddly compelling. Recommended but not at high cost… Finally, this list wouldn’t be complete without a cookbook or two: Darra Goldstein’s The Georgian Feast has lots of good recipes, including chakhokhbili (chicken with herbs) and basturma (marinated grilled meats). If you want to cheat, I’ve found that adding a little khmeli suneli herb and spice mix will make just about any meat, even a hamburger, taste almost Georgian. (I buy it prepackaged from a local Russian store but there’s a recipe on Wikipedia, here.) And then there’s Please to the Table, by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman: I’ve used so many recipes from this book that I couldn’t possibly list them all. Big favorites, though, include the Georgian pkhali sauce (served over fried eggplant), green beans with ground lamb, plov (albeit with adaptations), and croquettes Pozharsky.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Avoiding Existential Dread: Masha Regina

I’ve been dreading writing about Vadim Levental’s Маша Регина (Masha Regina) for months now, even using a whole arsenal of procrastination techniques (from focusing on award news to telling myself I’m just too darn tired to blog) to avoid this post, all because some books are scary as hell to write about. Particularly books I enjoy and respect as much as Masha Regina, which is, by way of brief summary, a beautiful, tightly structured character sketch of a novel—in my experience, it’s rare to find “character sketch” and “novel” combine so well—about a young woman who comes to Leningrad from a small city and becomes a film director.

There are lots of themes, threads, and subplots I could describe and analyze for pages and pages—Masha’s love interests, studies, use of her life and family as cinematic material, outsiderness, ambitions, temperament, wishes for immortality, and so on and so forth—but it’s the immortality I’ve seemed to fixate on, first as I read, later as I translated excerpts, and now, too, months after finishing the book. One of my favorite phrases in the book refers to work (труд, often translated as labor) as “единственная возможность сбежать от экзистенциального ужаса,” or “the only option for escaping existential horror/dread.” Masha’s immortality may be anchored in celluloid (and/or digital zeroes and ones, hmm, I don’t remember) but Masha Regina begins, appropriately enough, with Easter, the ultimate celebration of immortality, and a subsequent “Christ is risen from the dead,” and then, shortly thereafter, a brief description of teenage Masha’s desire for immortality.

Underlying Masha’s quest for immortality are all sorts of other circumstances that produce everyday dreadfulness worthy of escape: a father who drinks, a dull and empty city, and a fear of getting stuck in a life she doesn’t want. It’s no wonder Masha draws things as she sees them, even as a little girl, whether it’s a cross-section of a river or a bird with four wings. Of course Masha is stuck in her old life despite leaving it—I suppose we all are, in some way—because she keeps coming back cinematically, which raises lots of questions about ethics and representation. Masha truly is a queen, and she’s also that rare literary character who’s simultaneously sympathetic and unsympathetic: ambitious, ruthless, damaged, regal, and also, in many ways, untouchable. Her life looks more painful than glamorous despite all her success and awards.

I think my dread of writing about Masha Regina came about largely because I found the book so inexplicably satisfying and indescribable. I mentioned months ago that when a friend and I met for coffee we realized we were both reading Masha Regina… and agreed the book would read along very nicely for a chapter or so, feel for a while like it might get dull, but then become thoroughly engrossing again. A little like life, I suppose, which may explain why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s a book about art, life, and existential dread (my favorite!) that actually feels like an inexplicably satisfying slice of art, life, and existential dread.

Disclosures: The usual. I read an electronic copy of Masha Regina that I requested from Levental’s literary agency after the book was shortlisted for the Big Book Award; I later translated excerpts of the novel.

Up Next: Marina Stepnova’s The Surgeon.