Sunday, September 25, 2016

Big Book Four: Ulitskaya’s Yakov’s Ladder

Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Лестница Якова (Yakov’s Ladder or Jacob’s Ladder, though I’ll use Ulitskaya’s agent’s title with “Yakov”) is a family saga of sorts, a novel that solidly covers four generations, with mentions of two others. One is younger and the other is older than the core four. Ulitskaya varies her form—sometimes writing almost story-like episodes about characters, sometimes including letters from her personal family archive—as she jumps back and forth in time, too, stretching from 1907 to 2011. To Ulitskaya’s great credit, she manages to structure the book so it feels like a novel and reinforces one of the book’s recurring themes: the difficulties that separations create for the family in all generations.

The book starts off promisingly, presenting four generations at once: Nora Osetskaya is introduced as the mother of an infant son, Yurik. She soon takes a call from her father, Genrikh, who’s calling to say that his mother, Marusya, has died. When Nora goes to her grandmother’s apartment, she takes a chest of family letters. (This small chest turns out to contain more than letters: there are also bedbugs that bite Nora during that first night. This earned three exclamation marks in the margin.)

There’s far too much plot in this book of more than 700 pages to write anything that resembles a meaningful plot summary but, for this reader, it’s the separations that unify the novel most successfully, thanks to how Ulitskaya incorporates the personal (e.g. the letters) and the historical and political. I should note that the Elkost literary agency’s Web site sums up the book’s examination of freedom very concisely. ***I will now include mild spoilers. The book will be published in English by FSG.*** Marusya and Yakov meet at a Rachmaninov concert—theater, dance, and music twist into a thick, thick thread in the book—and quickly become a couple, though they are separated almost as quickly when Marusya leaves Kiev for Moscow to study dance. I found their generation the most compelling in the book, perhaps because of Yakov’s combination of optimism that his relationship with Marusya can survive multiple terms of exile and the occasionally cranky (rightfully so, really) honesty he expresses in his letters. At one point he writes, “И теперь каждому ясно, кто разрушил мою семью. И таких, как мы, я вижу вокруг себя тысячи.” (Literally: “And it’s now clear to anyone who destroyed my family. And I see thousands like us around me.”) The book contains chunks of Ulitskaya’s grandfather’s personal letters and KGB file. Yakov was, for me, the most fully formed character in the novel, with his study of music, ability to find work wherever he lands, and attempts to hold his family together.

Nora, Yakov’s granddaughter, born in 1943, also gets a fair bit of attention, though I think her chapters lack the spark of Yakov’s. Nora marries her unusual high school boyfriend, Viktor, though they never live together and she has a closer—I’m thinking soulful here, not location, since they often go for months, even years, without any contact—relationship with Tengiz, a Georgian theater colleague she collaborates with. Yurik, too, gets plenty of ink, and he’s perhaps most notable for love of his music, where the Beatles (of course!) play a big role, along with the gift of a guitar from Tengiz. Yurik ends up in New York for part of the book, where Ulitskaya’s writing about his bohemian nineties life leans toward the essayistic and encyclopedic. She includes many details of the time and place, rather than focusing on character development that might have given me more basis for understanding Yurik’s heroin addiction.

All in all, Yakov’s Ladder certainly isn’t my favorite Ulitskaya novel—I think I’ll always prefer her Daniel Stein (previous post) and Sincerely Yours, Shurik—and she hits on many of my personal “please don’t” biases by using a fractured form (less successfully, I think, than in Daniel Stein, where she really made it work, but still effectively enough), including a real-life minor character (Solomon Mikhoels, who is a thoroughly interesting figure but…), and, as I mentioned above, background that felt superfluous. Despite all that—and its 700-plus-page physical heft—Yakov’s Ladder managed to hold my interest enough for me to finish the novel: nothing in the book felt especially new to me but I suspect it’s the familiarity of Ulitskaya’s settings, characters, and conclusions about the legacy of the past that make her books feel so easy—“easy” for me here means to comfortable to read despite some uncomfortable subject matter—to read. It’s no wonder the print run listed in my copy of Yakov’s Ladder is 100,000 copies and a translation is on the way.

Up next: Moscow trip report. Alexander Snegirev’s Faith/Vera and Oleg Zaionchkovsksky’s Timosha’s Prose: I think I’m going to write about these two in one post since there were odd similarities between them… And Sasha Filipenko’s Травля (Persecution, maybe? I’m still undecided), which is (about a quarter in) painful enjoyment, painful because of the characters’ difficulties but enjoyable because it’s strangely suspenseful and pretty lively. Unless it implodes, I suspect I’ll rate it fairly high on my Big Book ballot.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received electronic copies of the book from Ulitskaya’s literary agency, Elkost, whom I’ve known for some years now, and from the Big Book Award, where I’m a member of the jury. But I read the book in a printed edition.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

2016 Yasnaya Polyana Award Shortlists

I was very sorry to have to leave Moscow before the jury for the Yasnaya Polyana Award announced its 2016 shortlists: six books in the “XXI Century” division and three books in the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” division. Winners will be announced in late October. Without further ado—other than my usual caveat that many titles and book descriptions are problematic—here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order by author:

Narine Abgaryan’s С неба упали три яблока (Three Apples Fell from the Sky), the only book on the list that I’ve read in its entirety (previous post). It’s a lovely book and I enjoyed translating excerpts.

Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Поклонение волхвов (Adoration of the Magi), about which I wrote, earlier: “[it] sounds like it captures a lot, from the familiar biblical story in the title to a family story that begins in the middle of the nineteenth century and concludes in the present, with plot lines that involve a secret society, exile, and a romance with the tsar. Aflatuni’s name keeps popping up on award lists.” Though Adoration sounds very good, I bought Aflatuni’s The Ant Tsar/King in Moscow instead, primarily because it came first, is shorter, and sounds a bit simpler, better for easing myself into Aflatuni’s world.

Aleksandr Grigorenko’s Потерял слепой дуду, is a novella with a title I’m not sure how to translate, particularly since a quick look at the text shows play with language. Jury member Vladislav Otroshenko is quoted on the YP site as being especially pleased the novella made the list; it was among the books and stories he recommended to me when I saw him in Moscow. I thoroughly enjoyed Grigorenko’s Mebet (previous post) and bought Ilget in Moscow; I hope this novella comes out in book form, too.

Boris Minaev’s Мягкая ткань (Soft Fabric), a two-book combo: Батист (part 1) (part 2) (Batiste) and Сукно (Broadcloth or something similar, a heavyish fabric, often woolen; textiles were never my forte even when I sewed a lot!). I heard about the first book from a friend who’d loved it months ago so I was very happy when the publisher, Vremya, gave me copies of the first two books. The fabric apparently refers to life’s fabric, and the books are set primarily in the early twentieth century.

Vladimir Eisner’s Гранатовый остров (Garnet Island is my guess, based on a reader review I found), a collection of long and short stories about life in the Russian north. I love northern stories (see above, Mebet) and do appreciate books with polar bears on the cover.

Leonid Yuzefovich’s Зимняя дорога (The Winter Road), which already won the 2016 National Bestseller Award and is already on the Big Book shortlist, too. It’s a very absorbing “documentary novel” whose cover says “General A.N. Pepeliaev and anarchist I.Ia. Strod in Yakutia. 1922-1923.” As I’ve said before, Yuzefovich works wonders with archival materials.

In the children’s literature division:

Marina Moskvina and Yulia Govorova’s Ты, главное, пиши о любви (Write about Love, That’s the Main Thing or thereabout, albeit with a “you” thrown in) is an epistolary novel written by a writing teacher (Moskvina) and her student (Govorova), who moves to Pushkinskie Gory to work in a zoo.

Marina Nefedova’s Лесник и его нимфа (The Woodsman and His Nymph) is apparently about 1980s Moscow hippies—one of whom is a Janis Joplin sort of figure—and choices between art and love.

Yulia Yakovleva’s Дети ворона (The Raven’s Children, though the “raven” referred to here isn’t a bird, it’s what’s often known in English as a Black Maria…) is set in 1938: two children are left without their parents and younger brother. It’s the first in a cycle of stories about Leningrad.

Disclaimers: I am still a bit sleepy and hope this post makes sense (and lacks weird mistakes!). Two of the Yasnaya Polyana Award’s jury members—Eugene Vodolazkin and Vladislav Otroshenko—are authors I’ve translated. Some of these books have come to me from publishers and literary agents; I’ve translated excerpts of Abgaryan’s book.

Up Next: Moscow trip report (including a record heavy homeward haul of books that includes books by Aflatuni, Grigorenko, and Minaev), Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, Alexander Snegirev’s Vera (Faith), and Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Timosha’s Prose.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Live from Moscow Maine: Read Russia Winners

I’d planned to post a list of the winners of the Read Russia Prize while I was still in Moscow: I even set up a post with all the shortlisted names and titles, figuring I’d just work from there, deleting those who didn’t win (including myself), and be done in three minutes. Becoming part of the news, which is now old, though, made me want to post more than just a list of winners. First off, here’s the list:

  • Joaquín Fernández-Valdés and Alba for Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (Spain)
  • Selma Ancira and Fondo de Cultura Económica for short stories by twentieth-century writers (Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Blok, Gumilev, Mandelstam, Bunin, Bulgakov, and Berberova) (Mexico)
  • Lisa Hayden and Oneworld Publications for Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus (US and UK)
  • Claudia Scandura and Gattomerlino for Sergei Gandlevsky’s Rust and Yellow (Italy)
Joaquín, Lisa, Claudia, Selma; photo by Anatoli Stepanenko.

There are lots of great things about the Read Russia Prize but I particularly like the fact that it recognizes translators and publishers. And, I admit, that the ceremony takes place in beautiful, historical Pashkov House. It was particularly lovely that Eugene and his wife, who have both become good friends, were at the ceremony and that I was seated with them. They were at the Translator Congress, too, where Eugene spoke just before I did (thank goodness!) during the plenary session.

The title of Alexandra Guzeva’s article about the award referred to a translation “Oscar,” which is apt because all of us thanked lots of people in our speeches. I read my list after I said the translation itself was “fun,” something someone expressed surprise about later! (What could be more fun than translating a combination of archaic language and contemporary slang, anyway?! This is how people like me get their kicks.) I didn’t throw away my scribbled list so want to type it in here: lots of people helped me with that translation and they deserve recognition. I never tire of making these lists because translating a book isn’t a one-person job even if the copyright consists of only one name.

I thanked:
-members of the jury;
-everyone at the Institute of Translation;
-Oneworld Publications, particularly Juliet Mabey, who hired me for the job despite my lack of experience, and copy editor Will Atkins, whose work went so far in improving the translation;
-Liza Prudovskaya and Olga Bukhina, both of whom went over a draft of my translation;
-Eugene’s literary agents Natasha Banke and Julia Goumen, who asked (in a Facebook mail exchange, if I remember correctly) if I wanted to translate excerpts of the novel back in early 2013; and
-Eugene (who is Zhenya to me) for writing the book in the first place and—of course, since author/translator love was an ongoing theme at the Congress—for the warmest, closest collegial relationships I could ever imagine, with both him and Tanya.

There are lots of others I should/could have thanked, from the prize’s sponsor, Alfa-Bank, and organizer, the Yeltsin Foundation, to other translators of Laurus that were so much fun (that word again!) to correspond with as I translated, to many, many of you who have done so much for me as I began and then continued translating.

Disclaimers: Last week was a wonderful whirl and I’m still getting caught up on my sleep so apologize for any oddities in this post!

Up Next: Yasnaya Polyana Award short list, Moscow trip report (including a record heavy homeward haul of books), Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, and Alexander Snegirev’s Vera (Faith).

Photo credit: Thank you to Anatoli Stepanenko, whose photos of literary events make me feel like I’m there. And who was so calming as I awaited the award announcement!