Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year! & 2014 Highlights. The Footnotes Have It!

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I wish everyone an extraordinarily happy, healthy 2015 with an abundance of good, (whatever that may mean to you), fun, enjoyable books. This year, like last, turned out to be all about quality over quantity, with, alas, a plethora of abandoned books… fortunately, the good books more than made up for the books I didn’t finish. Here are some highlights.

Favorite book by an author I’d already read. I still haven’t posted about Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I finished several months ago. But a post is on the way. Seriously. In brief, though, Solovyov is a Petersburg historian who goes to Crimea for a conference about Larionov, a White Army general. Much academic hilarity ensues. Some of it in footnotes. Of course there are many, many more elements--like timelessness and some malfeasance involving a document--to this fun novel, a big reason why it’s so difficult to write about…

Favorite book by an author I’d never read. This one has to be Evgeny Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Translation, (previous post), which I loved for Chizhov’s grace in mixing genres, making an invented country work for this skeptical reader, and effectively describing all sorts of heat. I was glad to see that Translation won the Venets award last week from the Moscow Union of Writers.

Favorite book read in English. I admit that, as per the usual, I didn’t read as many Russia(n)-related books in English during 2014 as I might have... but that doesn’t mean Soviets, by Danzig Baldaev and Sergei Vasiliev, (previous post), isn’t worthy of another mention. The combination of detailed caricatures, black and white photos, and pointed captions is well worth reading and studying. This must be my year of loving footnotes: Soviets, translated by Polly Gannon and Ast A. Moore, contains lots of helpful explanatory notes. The publisher, Fuel, continues to produce beautiful books: I’ve been saving their Soviet Space Dogs, another attractive book, as a treat. The New Year holiday may be just the right time…

Favorite travel. Everything was good this year—BookExpo America in New York, the American Literary Translators Association conference in Milwaukee, and the Congress of Literary Translators in Moscow—but I have to vote for the Congress. Not much beats a trip to Moscow that includes a visit to Andrei Platonov’s grave, speaking about translating old language in contemporary novels, and having an opportunity to see so many of “my” writers, not to mention translator colleagues from all over. It was especially fun and helpful to meet the afore-mentioned Evgeny Vodolazkin and talk about his Laurus, which I’m busily working on now…

What’s coming up in 2015? Top blogging priority is to get caught up on posts. And I’m still trying to figure out ways to capture notes and comments about some of the books I abandon. Often hundreds of pages in, like, let’s say, Zakhar Prilepin’s The Cloister, a book that offers a new aesthetic for prison camp novels but just wasn’t going anywhere for me, or Vladimir Sorokin’s Tellurium, which seemed to rehash too many Sorokin books I’d already read. I suppose one way to capture this information is to write by-the-by notes, or add a “Biggest Disappointment of the Year” paragraph to my year-end posts. I could have written that paragraph this year about Prilepin’s book, which won the Big Book Prize. I could say that Konstantin Milchin sums up my problems with The Cloister beautifully here, noting, among other things, (and I’ll paraphrase) that the novel, which is a bit lacking on the plot side, could have been 300 pages or 1,000 pages long, all to, roughly the same effect. (For the record, I read around 270 pages so didn’t come up very short on that 300 figure...) I was very happy that Milchin mentions Prilepin’s language, which hardly seems to vary among his 1920s characters, who speak in suspiciously (my word!) modern terms. I’d wondered about this but, as a non-native reader of Russian, thought maybe I was too demanding, particularly given my work on Laurus, where it’s an understatement to say the dialogue sure does vary.

A reading priority for 2015: I’m hoping to keep reminding myself to look for more books published by smaller publishers and literary journals…

Thank You! Finally, another big thank you to everyone who visits the blog, whether regularly or occasionally. Happy New Year to everyone! And happy reading!

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, Marina Stepnova’s The Italian Lessons (Безобжный переулок), and Alexey Nikitin’s Victory Park, which is off to a great start… Also, a list of translations coming out in 2015. I’m taking names and titles, so send them on in now!

Disclaimers. The usual.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

More Miscellany: Booker Goes to Sharov… AATSEEL Awards… Russian Literature Week… Two Translations...

1. The Russian Booker Prize was awarded yesterday to Vladimir Sharov for Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). Sharov won third prize from the Big Book Award jury last week, too, so he’s had a busy award season. In other Booker news, Учительская газета reported, in a newsy article, that Natalya Gromova’s Ключ. Последняя Москва (The Key. The Last/Final Moscow) won the Booker’s grant award, which covers the book’s translation into English. 

Return to Egypt has not (yet) been translated into English, Sharov’s До и во время does exist in English, in the form of Oliver Ready’s translation, Before & During. I’m not even sure where or how to begin describing Before & During: this complex novel’s frame story involves a man checking himself into a psychiatric hospital, where he begins compiling stories for a Memorial Book. The novel’s primary character, though, turns out to be Madame de Staël, who seems to give birth to just about everyone, including herself. I’ve seen the word “phantasmagoria” used to describe the book more than once, and it’s more than appropriate for Sharov’s quirky combination of religion, Russian history, and culture… Stalin, Lenin, Scriabin, and Tolstoy are among the real-life figures who put in appearances, making for alternative history at its most peculiar. Before & During has a peculiar charm, too: I don’t usually have much patience for monologues but something about the book’s wackiness and, I’m sure, Oliver’s lucid translation, mesmerized me and I finished, even though I’m not exactly sure what I read. This is (yet another!) book it would be fun to research while rereading. For detailed descriptions of Before & During, see Anna Aslanyan’s review for The Independent and Russian Dinosaur’s detailed account. Caryl Emerson’s review in the April 11, 2014, issue of The Times Literary Supplement (which I happened to buy) contains a summary of the scandal at the journal Novyi mir when Before & During was first published in the nineties.

2. The American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) announced its annual book awards last week. Most exciting (for me anyway!) was that Sibelan Forrester won the scholarly translation award for The Russian Folktale, by Vladimir Propp, published by Wayne State University Press. I loved reading Propp years ago in grad school so this was a great reminder that I’ve been meaning to buy Sibelan’s book of Propp. The best literary translation award went to Anthony Anemone and Peter Scotto for I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary: The Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms, published by Academic Studies Press. Sophia Lubensky’s revised Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms (Yale University Press) won the language pedagogy award—I use an older edition of this book and find it ridiculously helpful in my translation work. Part of the fun of Lubensky’s dictionaries is that they include quotations from literature, with English translations… the new edition apparently includes contemporary authors like Akunin, Pelevin, Ulitskaya, and Sorokin. Finally, Katia Dianina won the award for literary and cultural studies for When Art Makes News: Writing Culture and Identity in Imperial Russia, published by Northern Illinois University Press.

3. I spent about 1.5 days in New York last week for Read Russia’s first annual Russian Literature Week festivities, enjoying two panel discussions: one panel looked at nineteenth-century classics, with translator Marian Schwartz, New York Review Books editor Edwin Frank, and Esther Allen, a translator from the Spanish and associate professor at Baruch College; the other panel focused on differences between translating classics and contemporary literature, with Marian Schwartz, Russian and Polish translator and New Vessel publisher Ross Ufberg, and translator and Columbia University professor Ron Meyer. I kept terrible notes but, in the midst of hearing about books like Marian’s translation of Anna Karenina, The Captain’s Daughter from Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Ross’s work on Vladimir Vysotsky’s stories, my memory zeroes in on two topics that I always find especially relevant and interesting: making sure the beginning of a book, particularly the very first page, has, as Marian put it, “zing,” and the special challenges of working on what will be an author’s debut in English. I also jotted down that someone said the word “pal” dates back to Shakespeare… this was interesting to learn since I’m using the phrase “be a pal” for a contemporary-sounding utterance in my translation of Vodolazkin’s Laurus, a book set in the Middle Ages that includes a spectrum of language ranging from archaicisms to modern slang. Flexibility is fun!

Speaking of fun: a highlight of Russian Literature Week was seeing translator friends. And it was particularly fun to see Katherine Dovlatov after reading Pushkin Hills, her translation of Sergei Dovlatov’s Заповедник. I read the first half of Pushkin Hills on a non-fun JetBlue flight last summer. But if ever there was a perfect book for a delayed flight on a stifling plane, this is it. Pushkin Hills tells, in first-person narrative, the story of one Boris Alikhanov, who has marital troubles as well as a job as a tour guide at the Pushkin Hills Preserve. Although I will always prefer the first half of the book—for its focus on the wonderful absurdity of working at a place dedicated to Pushkin (Our Everything!)—I came to appreciate the second half more. The novel’s second act includes a visit from Alikhanov’s wife and a visit to a KGB officer. Dovlatov’s humor felt absolutely perfect on that hot, tardy plane, thanks to, of course, a very funny original plus, of course, Katya Dovlatov’s translation, which renders her father’s short sentences into funny, colloquial English that reads beautifully. (Let me just say: that is not easy.) I think Katya succeeded so well because, as she notes in this Paris Review interview, she read the Russian out loud and then tried things out in English, “to keep the same musicality, the same tone.” She made lots of bang-up word choices, like scrud and booze-up, that capture the feel of her father’s novel and keep the text lively. And keep me laughing. No easy feat on a late airplane, particularly for a book I first read and enjoyed in Russian. Pushkin Hills was published in the U.S. by Counterpoint Press and in the U.K. by Alma Classics. Also of interest: Marisa Robertson-Textor’s “All Dovlatov’s Children: Recent Soviet Émigré Literature.”

Up Next: Back to the books, starting with Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок (Italian Lessons) or Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov. There are also lots more English-language translations and originals on the shelves, just waiting. I’m not sure, though, about Prilepin’s The Cloister… it might have won the Big Book last week, but after nearly 300 pages, The Cloister feels a little too big, a little too wordy, and a little too stuffed with, well, stuff that could have/should have been pared down a bit. Or a lot. But we’ll see.

Disclaimers: The usual, for knowing so many people in this post. Thank you to Dedalus Books for the copy of Before & During and Counterpoint Press for Pushkin Hills. Read Russia brought me to New York for Russian Literature Week.