Sunday, July 12, 2015

Food Fetishists in (Post-)Perestroika Petersburg: Nosov’s Member of the Society

Sergei Nosov’s Член общества, или Голодное время (literally something like A Member of the Society, or a Hungry Time) begins with a loaded action: our faithful first-person narrator, Oleg Zhiltsov, sells his Collected Works of F.M. Dostoevsky (thirty volumes, thirty-three books) after reading the whole damn set in three days and three nights. Yes, he’d been taking speed-reading courses in (ahem!) the spring of 1991, and all that Dostoevsky was a final project of sorts, though Oleg says he would have lost his mind had he read more. After finishing, he sleeps. Then he drinks. And a month or so later he sells the books.

Selling the Dostoevsky may pay a creditor, but a failed sale at the bookstore also proves fateful for Oleg: the unsold book is a vegetarian cookbook, Я никого не ем (literally, I Don’t Eat Anyone), that a stranger on a trolleybus (the number eight) notices. Fascinated by a stamp on the title page, he asks to borrow it. It turns out the man, one Dolmat Fomich Lunocharov, from a booklover society, says he’s into sphragistics (also known as sigillography), which, in his terms, means he loves looking at stamps in the margins of books.

Clearly, things are building here thanks to a combination of, among other things, Dostoevsky, 1991 (the year of the GKChP and, later, the dissolution of the USSR), food in a time of shortages, books, meeting a strange stranger on public transportation, marginalia (both social and bookish), and a Petersburg setting. There are even mentions of Anatolii Sobchak, whom I once took for a (brief) walk around Freeport, Maine. Perhaps what’s most important, though, is that Nosov writes like he’s in his element because he is in his element: he says in this interview that he lived much of his life near Sennaya Square, a place that both Dostoevsky and his characters often passed through and that appears in A Member of the Society. In that same interview, Nosov also notes that Oleg’s problems begin when he sells his Dostoevsky, books Nosov refers to as Oleg’s “наследие/nasledie.” (The Oxford Russian dictionary offers “heritage” and “legacy,” and I might add that there are lots of related words, too, like наследство/nasledstvo, which is “inheritance.)

Oleg may have sold his nasledie during a transitional time but Nosov sure works all his personal and literary nasledia well, incorporating housing on Sennaya Square, thoughts of axe murder, writing careers, and lots of taboos, including one that sure seems to show that pretty much everything really is permitted. Along the way, there are lots more fun, often peculiar, details: lavish dinner parties though many foods are only available by ration coupons, Oleg’s food columns, with recipes, for a publication that doesn’t really seem to exist though it does pay, a politician named Skotorezov (roots: livestock and slaughter), mention of a horrible pool player named Sergei Nosov, a secret passageway, and Oleg saying that something within him has sounded polyphonic ever since he turned in his Dostoevsky.

Lists are about all my melted, confused, and aching head can muster on this ninety-plus-degree day! I could compile many, many more of them but I’ll just conclude by saying that I found A Member of the Society a thoroughly entertaining novel with a linear plot, blend of genres (love story, a bit of picaresque, and the mystery of odd characters), Dostoevsky, and, for my taste, an ideal blend of nineties sadness and humor, something I know all too well. I’m looking forward to giving Nosov’s Curly Brackets, winner of this year’s NatsBest, a try, too.

Up Next: More books: Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I’ll start translating soon, Elena Minkina-Taycher’s The Rebinder Effect, an episodic novel about several families, and the first book in my Big Book Award finalist marathon, Guzel’ Iakhina’s wonderful debut novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

New York Trip Report, Part Two, Belated: BookExpo America

It’s funny how each of my BookExpo America trips has its own feel: this year’s BEA left me with the sense of a stronger-than-ever community of translators and publishers of translations. This wasn’t because China was the market focus country this year and had a ginormous amount of space on the exhibition floor but because of conversations with translators and publishers in and around BEA. As usual, BEA hosted a series of market focus panel discussions about the business of translation, but this year also included announcements of the winners of the Best Translated Book Award as well as a succession of panels organized by the PEN American Center Translation Committee. I came away from all that convinced that recent start-up publishers—Two Lines Press, New Vessel Press, and DeepVellum Press among them—as well as lots of more established small-to-medium publishers—such as Europa Editions, Soho Press, Other Press, and Open LetterBooks—are winning lots of awards, getting reviewed, and (the big thing!) publishing books that they can sell because they know who their readers are. I could double the publisher list without even having to consult Google or my BEA lists but will just add that there’s also a bunch of several London-based publishers of varying sizes and ages—And Other Stories, Pushkin Press, and OneworldPublications, for example—that make me think this isn’t just a U.S.-based phenomenon. On to events and books!

Of course it’s ancient history now, but just for the record and just in case you missed it, the 2015 Best Translated Book Award winners are, for prose, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen and published by Yale University Press, and, for poetry, Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong and published by Phoneme Media. Phoneme, by the way, is another pretty new press, and Diorama is their first book of poetry. For more on BTBA 2015.

I loved the PEN Translation Committee’s panels because they were brief and packed with information and tips. “Reaching the Reader: Publicizing International Literature,” with Juliet Grames, associate publisher at Soho Press, and Allison Markin Powell, a translator from the Japanese, looked at issues like the role of the translator, social media versus bookstores (summary: bookstores have it all over Twitter, thinks Grames) (okay, the italics are mine!), online reviewers with good credibility (I noted The CompleteReview, Words Without Borders, and Three Percent), and Google authenticity. Meaning: the panelists looked at online and offline aspects of publicity. “Baiting the Hook: How to Catch an Editor’s Interest” was just as good: among other things, translator Ezra Fitz reminded us that it’s okay to spoil plots when sending book synopses to an editor (why do I always forget this?!) and Corinna Barsan, an editor at Grove Atlantic, said bigger is better when it comes to sample translations, synopses, and, generally, the informational package you send to publishers. Nothing in either panel was a surprise but all the presenters touched on subjects we (or at least I) often need reminders about. I was rather late to Retranslating the Great Works of Literature: How and Why? so didn’t hear all that Robert Weil of Liveright & Co. and translators Tess Lewis and Burton Pike had to say.

Publishers offered picks at two translation “buzz” panels, too: Coach House served up Louis Carmain’s Guano, translated by Rhonda Mullins; Gray Wolf Press listed A Woman Loved, by Andreï Makine and translated by Geoffrey Strachan (this book involves a filmmaker obsessed with Catherine the Great); and Coffee House Press offered The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli and translated by Christina MacSweeney. A special thriller and crime buzz panel dished up Soho Press’s recommendation of Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun, translated by Allison Markin Powell, and Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence, translated by Alex Zucker; plus Europa Editions’ Gang of Lovers, written by Massimo Carlotto and translated by Antony Shugaar, and I Will Have Vengeance, written by Maurizio de Giovanni and translated by Anne Milano Appel.

What else? It was great to see translator and writer friend Aviya Kushner, whose The Grammar of God will be out this fall. After working with and quoting from various English and Russian translations of the Bible for my translation of Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, I’m especially looking forward to Aviya’s book because it’s about the Bible, translation, and belief. For now, I always love recommending Aviya’s essay, “Kafka and the Habits of Highly Effective People,” a truly wonderful piece of writing… There aren’t a lot of Russian-English translations to add to the 2015 translation list, though I had no idea (or simply forgot?) the Theatre Communications Group publishes translations: Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard will be out this year in a translation by Robert Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky; that same trio translated Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector, released last year. As for books I picked up… I already read and enjoyed The Man Who Spoke Snakish, a novel by Andrus Kivirähk and translated from the Estonian by Christopher Moseley (Grove Atlantic), which features a stylized version of medieval Estonia, a contemporary-sounding first-person narrator from the forest, cultural clashes between meat-eating forest-dwellers and bread-eating villagers, interspecies marriage, and a charming but vicious adder named Ints. (Truth be told, I especially loved the adders in this book.) I just started Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence, in Alex Zucker’s translation (Soho Press), which combines Kovály’s love of American noir (she was a translator, too) with Czech realities. The very first books I picked up at BEA this time around were Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions), and Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, translated by John Cullen (Other Press). Maybe Camus will come off the shelf for a reread, too.

One other note: next year’s BEA will be in Chicago and the market focus will be Poland. Hmm. I’ve never been to a BEA outside New York but Poland, hmm.

And one truly final note. I didn’t go to many events that were part of the BEA market focus program but a Chinese and American poetry reading at the Bowery Poetry Club—beautifully moderated by translator Eleanor Goodman and with readings from Lan Lan, Zhao Lihong, Edwin Frank, Canaan Morse, and Peter Gizzi—was a perfect way to have no regrets whatsoever about spending a couple hours in a dark room on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon. Bonus since I’m so clueless about translations from languages other than Russian: learning about Paper Republic, a fantastic site about Chinese literature in translation.

Disclaimers: A million for all the books—thank you to the publishers!—and contacts, plus the usual.

Up Next: A bunch of books: Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I’ll start translating this summer, meaning ever sooner, Sergei Nosov’s Член общества, или Голодное время (something like Member of the Society or A Time of Hunger), the sad-but-funny story of a man’s life after selling all his Dostoevsky, and Elena Minkina-Taycher’s The Rebinder Effect, an episodic novel about several families. And then my Big Book Award finalist marathon, which I began with Guzel’ Iakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which I’m enjoying very, very much and will be finishing this weekend…