Sunday, November 30, 2014

Free(ing) Will in the Russian Far East: Remizov’s Ashes and Dust

In discussing Viktor Remizov’s Воля вольная—a novel that’s known by a completely different title, Ashes and Dust, in English—it’s probably best to start with the book’s tricky Russian title. The words, which transliterate as Volya vol’naya, refer, essentially, to the setting free of someone’s will to do something. The Russian title sums up the novel perfectly: Remizov writes about people and their will for freedom in the Russian Far East. In telling their stories, Remizov looks at problems that arise in an engrained system where poachers, everyday people, pay off officials for the dubious right to do illegal things.

Remizov writes about hunters, fishermen, cops, and Omonovtsy, officers in the Russian special forces, though I came away with an even better picture of the taiga’s snow, trees, and animals than its people. That’s not to say Remizov does a bad job describing his people—he handles a pretty large cast surprisingly well—it’s to say he does a beautiful job describing nature and the ways people inhabit it. It’s very difficult to believe Ashes and Dust is a debut novel; I’m glad the Big Book and Russia Booker award juries both named it a finalist. A bit more on that below.

Remizov’s novel is, of course, far, far more elegant than my description and part of my admiration for the book lies in the fact that Remizov has resurrected a genre that makes the book feel rather retro: the social novel. Remizov glides between intersecting subplots and creates a cast of characters that makes Ashes and Dust remind me, structurally, at any rate, more of Richard Price’s Clockers than of, say, Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs, a book set far closer to the Russian Far East than Price’s New Jersey. Though Ashes and Dust, like The Yeltyshevs, is a work of realism that looks at difficult living situations, both physical (lack of indoor facilities) and psychological (lack of individual freedoms), Remizov casts a broader net (pun intended: there is fishing in the book) than Senchin by concentrating on a universal social problem—freedom, on many levels—and offering individuals from several parts of society rather than detailing the facts of the fate of one person or one family, as Senchin’s novel (and most naturalistic chernukha literature) does so successfully.

I had never thought much about the Russian sable...
There’s something almost relaxing about reading Ashes and Dust, despite some difficult vocabulary and the tensions of a community torn apart by bribery, hunters like Genka Milyutin following his forefathers’ instincts out in the taiga, personal issues for a not-so-bad cop and his girlfriend, or wealthy Muscovite Ilya’s one-on-one with a bear. I won’t say who wins. And then there are the special forces, who come in to restore order when emotions start to boil in the community because of the issue of paying tribute. Remizov includes lots of other details that give the book texture, like холодец (that jellied meat some of us dread so much), good cop/bad cop, class differences, the guitarist Balaban, vodka, playing Mozart in the wilderness, the obligatory Rambo reference, a feeling of love among friends, and lots of discussion of what’s wrong with Russia.

Almost nothing in Ashes and Dust is especially innovative but Remizov puts all his pieces together in a way that makes them feel oddly, even paradoxically, fresh. I’d love to say the freshness (or illusion of freshness?) comes from the distant setting and witnessing how characters handle the wilderness, something Remizov obviously knows well—I was probably predisposed to enjoy Ashes and Dust for the simple reason that I love snow and cold weather—but, again, I think it’s the social novel genre’s jumpiness that keeps the novel on pace despite all sorts of elements that can really slow down a book and put me on the brink of boredom: nature descriptions and discussion of the afore-mentioned Big Questions About Freedoms. Instead of boredom, I found myself slowing down toward the end of the book because I didn’t want it to end.

As for the awards, well, it makes me happy that the Big Book and Booker juries—and the thick journal Novyi mir, which published the novel before it was reprinted in book form, first by Grand Express in Khabarovsk, this fall by Elena Shubina’s imprint at AST—recognized Ashes and Dust. To be honest, I think I’m so used to postmodern novels these days that Ashes and Dust was a bit of a shock to the system. It’s hard to find good social novels (at least in my world) and, again, the word “retro” seems to apply: the book feels wonderfully and welcomingly old-fashioned despite lots of markers from contemporary life, like references to the Chechen War and the Moscow business world. In the end, as I type, I remember a thought that came when I began reading Ashes and Dust: Remizov is a very good storyteller, a quality that feels a little under-rated these days. Storytelling is, for me, the most important aspect of a good book, whether the writer tells a story using old-school or postmodern methods. Whatever they might be.

Disclaimers: The usual. Publisher Elena Shubina introduced me to Viktor Remizov at the Moscow International Book Fair; I was given a copy of his novel. For these and numerous other reasons, if I hadn’t liked this book, I probably would have feigned losing it or said our cat Ireland shredded it, something that, alas, really, truly could happen. Ireland especially loves the binding of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s Endarkment, a bilingual collection of poetry edited by Eugene Ostashevsky that Wesleyan University Press sent to me ages ago... and from which I’ve read and enjoyed bits and pieces... this seems to be the way I read poetry collections.

Up Next: Some other book? Perhaps Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок (Italian Lessons)? Or Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov? Or maybe even a trip report about the 1.5 days I’m about to spend in New York, thanks to Read Russia’s first-annual Russian Literature Week, a celebration of Russian literature and translation? I’m sure I’ll see some of you at events on Monday and Tuesday!

Image from Sewell Newhouse’s 1867 The Trapper’s Guide, via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The 2014 Big Book Award Winners

Just a very quick post with this year’s Big Book Award winners. There weren’t any real surprises here. I would have loved to have seen Evgeny Chizhov win something—anything!—for his Translation from a Literal Translation, (previous post), which I liked so much but, well…

The jury awards went to:
  • The top prize was awarded to Zakhar Prilepin’s Обитель (The Cloister). A novel about the Solovetsky Islands in the 1920s. The Cloister already won the Book of the Year award and is also a finalist for the Russian Booker. I’ve been reading The Cloister for a while and it will take me another while to finish: it’s very long and rather detailed.
  • Vladimir Sorokin took second place for Теллурия (Tellurium). On my NatsBest long list post, I wrote: 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. Shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller.
  • Vladimir Sharov won third place for Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). In which one Kolya Gogol (a distant relative of familiar old Nikolai Gogol) finishes writing Dead Souls. An epistolary novel. Shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller and Russian Booker.

Reader awards went to:

Up Next: Books, likely starting with Viktor Remizov’s Ashes and Dust, a very worthy Big Book finalist about poachers and corruption in the taiga.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Wind-Blown in Milwaukee: The 2014 ALTA Conference

The most exciting item to report from the 2014 American Literary Translators Association conference is that a translation from the Russian—Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich, and published by New York Review Books—won the National Translation Award (NTA). Yankelevich accepted the award, saying he and Ostashevsky were “grateful on our authors’ behalf.” Yankelevich read several poems from the book as well as a statement from Ostashevsky, who selected poems for the collection and wrote its introduction but couldn’t come to Milwaukee. NYRB sent me a copy of An Invitation for Me to Think when the book was released last year, I’ve heard Yankelevich read from it twice now, and I’ve picked up the book several times to read poems, Ostashevsky’s introduction, and even the notes in the back. But I seem to lack the vocabulary to write about my thoughts and/or feelings about the poems—not surprising, perhaps, since the topics of бессмыслица (meaninglessness/absurdity/nonsense to borrow from Ostashevsky’s introduction) and “How do you write in a language that is false?” came up in Yankelevich and Ostashevsky’s comments at ALTA—so will simply recommend them (the poems, that is, not my thoughts and/or feelings) and, of course, this compactly complete book, by saying that these translations are starkly and strangely beautiful and moving. “Rug Hydrangea,” which Yankelevich translated, particularly gets me. The Lucien Stryk Prize, which recognizes translations of Asian poetry or Zen Buddhism into English, went to Jonathan Chaves for Every Rock a Universe—The Yellow Mountains and Chinese Travel Writing, (Floating World Editions, 2013), which features works by Wang Hongdu.

One of my favorite aspects of ALTA is hearing other translators speak about techniques for solving stubborn problems. I’ve heard Bill Johnston speak two or three times now about his translations from the Polish. This year, in a panel on translating point of view, Johnston offered examples from his translation of Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans, another NTA finalist. Johnston’s introduction on his hand-out describes the book as “a first-person narrative with a concrete yet mysterious addressee/imagined interlocutor.” (Variations on this point of view seem to be surprisingly common.) Many of the (translated) sentences Johnston bolded in his examples involved, in some way, “you,” and his comments on little things—like translating the Polish “pan” as “sir” in the beginning of the book, to establish a sense of the second person plural/formal “you” that exists in Polish but not in English—offer great models for Russian, too. Johnston’s reading from the book, during a lunchtime event, was equally instructive: he’s a master at creating and maintaining voices.

A panel called “Translation in Particular Genres” focused solely on translation to and from Russian and English: Boris Dralyuk, Sibelan Forrester, and Olga Bukhina spoke about specific challenges of specific works. Dralyuk discussed his translation of Dmitry Usov’s Переводчик (“The Translator”), a poem discovered by Mikhail Gasparov that offers a translation within a translation. Forrester talked about her work on poet Maria Stepanova’s prose, “Conversations in the Realm of the Dead,” noting the challenge of translating a poet’s prose; Forrester mentioned her use of Marina Tsvetaeva and Susan Sontag as models, too. It was also fun to hear from Olga Bukhina, who translates from English to Russian, about the difficulties she faced with Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, a book set in nineteenth-century Texas that features a cotton gin and lots of vetch, neither of which translates easily into Russian. Bukhina also looked at issues of noun gender that apparently (and logically!) vex the English-to-Russian translator as much as the Russian-to-English translator.

There was, as usual, a good Russian presence at the conference so lots of translators read from their Russian-to-English translations during Bilingual Reading sessions. There were so many fun and beautiful readings that it’s not fair to pick out highlights but, well, I’ll pick a few anyway: Danuta Borchardt’s soft voice and soft humor in her reading from her translation of Witold Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk; Tanya Paperny’s rendition of the bull’s speech from Nikolai Kostomarov’s story “Скотский бунт,” thought by some to have been appropriated by George Orwell for Animal Farm (FMI: John Reed on the subject; Paperny’s translation will be included in an e-book Reed is working on); Marian Schwartz’s crystalline new beginning to Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; and Jane Bugaeva’s delightful (no other word will do!) translations of poems by Oleg Grigoriev. I read from my translation of Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Laurus. I’ll also use this opportunity to mention that one of my favorite performances during the ¡Declamacion! readings, which must be memorized, was Sibelan Forrester and Christina Kramer’s rendition of Pushkin’s Я вас любил,” sung to the tune of “Danny Boy.” I have no idea how that worked out so perfectly but it was lovely. I recited two poems: Vyacheslav Kupriyanov’s Русский вопрос (“A/The Russian Question”), which consists solely of lines with two names, Kalashnikov and Baryshnikov, and a poem by Grigorii Petukhov that begins by referencing “The Internationale.”

I could go on and on, listing more readings and fun(ny) comments and useful ideas from panels and roundtables—editing, translation as betrayal, and marketing were especially lively topics—but I’ll stop there. I should add that we Russian translators are already talking about having a Russian translation workshop next year: this wouldn’t be a workshop in the traditional sense but more a forum for sharing ways we’ve (re)solved sticky translation problems. If you’re a Russian translator who missed ALTA this year but want to come next year or didn’t talk with me in Milwaukee about this potential workshop, please send me a note. The 2015 conference will be in Tucson, which ought to be a bit warmer than ear-freezing but (otherwise) hospitable Milwaukee.
The Annunciation, c. 1490-95
Sandro Botticelli (with assistance?)

Also, on a cultural note: I spent part of my last day in Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where I thoroughly enjoyed a real coffee and “Of Heaven and Earth,” a visiting exhibit of Italian painting from Glasgow museums. I went specifically to see the pieces from the Middle Ages…

P.S. I hope I didn’t spell any names incorrectly... there are so many in this post and I’m still so tired!

P.P.S. I spent this afternoon at my local library for a screening of the documentary Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin, with the film’s co-directors, Sarah Wallis and Paul Mitchell. You can watch it, too, on YouTube. Even if you won’t be able to ask the directors questions, you’ll still get Stephen Fry’s readings of excerpts from several novels—set to wonderful animated segments—as well as interviews with writers including Zakhar Prilepin and Lyudmila Ulitskaya. The very last minute or two, with Vladimir Sorokin, jolted me yet again, even on my third or fourth viewing.
Up Next: Big Book Award winners on Tuesday. And then books galore, probably starting with Viktor Remizov’s Ashes and Dust, a very worthy Big Book finalist about poachers and corruption in the taiga.

Disclaimers: The usual. I collaborated on a story that will appear in an upcoming NYRB book.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Potpourri: NOS(E) Finalists for 2014 & Read Russia Award Submissions & NYT Book Reviews

I’m slow yet again with my news about NOS(E)… the 2014 finalists were announced in late October. According to a piece in Аргументы и факты-Красноярск, Sorokin’s Tellurium was a heavy jury favorite, the Aleksievich and Freidensson books caused heated debate, and Rafeenko’s book presages events in eastern Ukraine. You can read any of the books from the NOS(E) short or long list and vote for a favorite, here. Here are the finalists, listed in Russian alphabetical order:

  • Svetlana Aleksievich’s Время сэконд хэнд (See Second-Hand Time for a detailed description and a list of translations). Nonfiction about Russia’s post-Soviet history. 
  • Linor Goralik’s Это называется так (This Is What It’s Called or some similar combination of words…). Short stories and a play.
  • Maksim Gureev’s Покоритель орнамента (Conqueror of Ornamentation? The title phrase is in the text but…). A mixture of the here-and-now and historical times… apparently involving a rug at a Crimean museum.
  • Margarita Meklina’s Вместе со всеми (Along With Everyone) Short stories.
  • Aleksandr Mil’shtein’s Параллельная акция (A Parallel Action). A “novel-palimpsest,” according to this review.
  • VladimirRafeenko’s Демон Декарта (Descartes’s Demon). About a man who’s reborn multiple times, wandering the world and wanting to choose one life/fate for himself. This book looks particularly interesting.
  • Vladimir Sorokin’s Теллурия (Tellurium). On my NatsBest long list post, I wrote: A polyphonic novel in 50 highly varying chapters. Also shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller and Big Book awards.
  • Aleksei Tsvetkov’s Король утопленников (King of the Drowned). Prose texts arranged by size… the first takes up less than a half a page, the last is around 80 pages long. NB: This book was not written by the poet named Aleksei Tsvetkov. This book recently won an Andrei Bely Prize. I think it’s one of the most interesting-looking books on the list.
  • Tatyana Freidensson’s Дети Третьего рейха (Children of the Third Reich). Nonfiction written by a journalist.

Read Russia Award Submissions. One of you wrote to me recently asking about submission information for the 2015 Read Russia Prize. I knew nothing about the current award season at the time but now, thanks to a Facebook post, here’s a link to everything everyone needs to know. I’m especially happy to see there are now four categories for the English-language award.

Bonus Book Review Links! I’ve been woefully lax about posting links to reviews of books published in translation or related to Russia… The October 24, 2014, issue of The New York Times Book Review includes Christopher Rice’s “Killer Company,” which includes a mini-review of Sergey Kuznetsov’s Butterfly Skin, which was translated by Andrew Bromfield and published by Titan. Titan uses words like “gruesome” and “pathological” in its description, and Rice includes this sentence: “The result is a sustained look into the culture of Russian Internet journalism that should appeal to readers who like their thrillers strewn with journalistic details that don’t belong in evidence bags.” I was even happier to see that the November 7, 2014, issue of the Times Book Review contains Rich Cohen’s full-length review of Eugene Yelchin’s Arcady’s Goal, about a soccer-playing Russian boy whose parents are enemies of the people. I’ve read—and thoroughly enjoyed—a large chunk of the book and can’t help but agree with Cohen that, “The language is taut and dramatic. The illustrations are moody, stark and beautiful.” Yelchin packs an astounding amount of emotion and history into his taut writing.

Up Next. All those books I keep promising to write about, but which keep piling up, though I’m glad to have them waiting: Zakhar Prilepin’s The Cloister, with its hundreds of pages and small type, will definitely take some time. Thus far, I’m finding it compulsively readable… I have a slew of good books to write about: Evgeny Vodolazkin’s first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, Marina Stepnova’s Italian Lessons, and Viktor Remizov’s Ashes and Dust. Plus another slew of books I’ve been reading in English. Also: Big Book winners and a trip report about the American Literary Translators Association conference, coming up this week: I’ll be on my way to Milwaukee and the Polar Vortex soon. Brrr!

Disclaimers: The usual, including the fact that I work on occasional projects for Read Russia.