Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Books in English: Expats, Love, Life, Literature, and Moscow

On the surface, two novels set in Moscow that I read this spring and summer—Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist and Guillermo Erades’s Back to Moscow—have a lot in common. Both feature young expats who come to Moscow at tumultuous times, both include lots of literary references, and both end rather sadly, with departures that fit their times. Both novels also mention the dangers of falling ic(icl)e(s) in spring. The differences, of course, are greater the similarities; I’ll try to summarize…

Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist begins in 1914, when Gerty Freely moves from England to Moscow, to work as a governess for the Kobelev family. What struck me most at the beginning of the book was Gerty’s appreciation of Moscow, where she and I both love walking. Here’s the beginning of a paragraph early in the novel:

Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections. At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might. I was still ignorant of politics, yet as a Chapel girl I couldn’t help but be shocked by the contrast between the golden domes and palaces and the crowds of beggars at their doors.

My favorite part of the novel begins after the Kobelev family decamps for Yalta, thanks to unrest after the coup/revolution of 1917, leaving the house in the care of servants and family friend/lodger Nikita Slavkin, a futurist and inventor whose ideas include things like “unbreakable rubber crockery sets that you could fold together and use as a pillow [and] a portable shower bath.” As time passes, Gerty and Nikita become involved (somewhat) romantically, some of the Kobelevs return, the house becomes a commune for young members who share things as intimate as underwear, and there are mentions of real-life futurists. Beyond the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by early Soviet communal living experiments—there’s even a daily timetable here for comrades’ activities and there are jealousies, too—and any book that quotes Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Incantation by Laughter” (in Gary Kern’s translation in the book) wins lots of bonus points, particularly since Gerty notes, “read aloud, [it] always reduced us to helpless snorting heaps.”

Hobson wrote The Vanishing Futurist in the first-person, from Gerty’s perspective as she’s going through old papers and looking for a way to tell her daughter about her past. I particularly admire Hobson’s ability to combine the light—crushes, humor, whimsical inventions—with political and historical realities of the time, which are, of course, linked to Slavkin’s disappearance. Hobson also has a light touch with bits of Russian she includes, mentioning, for example, “using the polite “Vy” or noting that millet porridge was called blondinka, something I hadn’t known, perhaps because I’d do just about anything to avoid the stuff. Whether my kasha of choice is grechka or blondinka, Peter Pomerantsev’s blurb on the back of my book is very apt: “That rare case of a profound book being unputdownable.” That made The Vanishing Futurist perfect reading when I was painfully busy and particularly valued an enjoyable, smart novel with a good sense of plot and history.

The operative cover blurb for Erades’s debut novel, Back to Moscow, comes from Publishers Weekly: “Russia’s capital is the most dynamic character in Erades’s boozy bildungsroman.” Russian literature grad student Martin comes to turn-of-the-century Moscow with surprisingly low proficiency in either Russian or literature, and seems to spend more of his time studying The eXile and going to bars (some of which I remember from the 1990s, too) to drink and meet women. The biggest problem with Martin as a character is that he’s kind of a jerk, a fairly unpleasant first-person narrator whose attitudes toward women make him a literary character that I at least hoped would become a prime candidate for redemption. What felt oddest to me is that when I think back to The eXile of the 1990s, Martin seems like almost a milquetoast and/or a wannabe by comparison; I wonder if that might have been among Erades’s intentions. In any case, his treatment of his girlfriends can be awfully callous and he does some truly dumbass things, but his defense of a tutor early in the book establishes that at least part of his heart is kind. Making him redeemable.

Beyond his (nearly) main occupation of boozing and womanizing, Martin spends a lot of his time reading Russian novels, analyzing and discussing female characters (here we have life and literature!) in a way that felt a bit Cliff Note-like to me, doing occasional work with a Russian businessman friend, and, yes, enjoying Moscow itself. I can’t say that Back to Moscow is my ideal novel—it feels a bit too disjointed, obvious, laden with gratuitous uses of words like “elitny” and “interesno,” and rather predictable twists, though I suppose that’s typical of the genre—but Erades, like Hobson, too, manages to conjure up the feeling of being an expat exploring Moscow. Of course it helps that Erades gifts Martin with a nice apartment by Pushkin Square, making it all the easier, for example, to go to the Stanislavsky Theater to see Heart of a Dog, a Bulgakov adaptation I loved back in the day, too… And I give a nice plus to Martin’s tutor for talking with him about superfluous men.

What’s odd about the combination of these two books, which I read in fairly rapid succession, is that I enjoyed The Vanishing Futurist far more during my reading but came to appreciate Back to Moscow nearly as much after finishing. I suppose that’s partially because of an observation in Erades’s very brief, very last chapter, and partially (to suppose again) because Martin comes to Moscow around the time I left and his account of his girlfriends’ sadness about current events (among other things) felt so familiar. Though they’re not my own, I found plenty of sadness and exhilaration to identify with in Gerty’s world and in Martin’s world. Finally, I have to say I was pleased to see that at least two Goodreaders said Back to Moscow made them more interested in Russian classical literature. I hope The Vanishing Futurist helps bring Khelbnikov, as well as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Blok, who also get mentions, to some new readers, too.

For more: Max Liu, independent.co.uk, on Back to Moscow (he also mentions the superfluous man discussion) and Anna Aslanyan, spectator.co.uk on The Vanishing Futurist.

Disclaimers: Thank you to Faber & Faber for the copy of The Vanishing Futurist and to Picador for the copy of Back to Moscow!

Up Next: Aleksei Slapovsky’s rather uneven but easy-reading Неизвестность, which I suppose I’ll call Uncertainty.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Russian-to-English Translations for 2017

I may be wrong but I think this year’s translation list hits an all-time high [edit: I was very wrong! It turns out that 2014 is larger, though a) the 2017 list may yet grow significantly and b) there could be more 2014 listings that were postponed to 2015.] in terms of sheer numbers: 42 44 45 47 48 49 50 books of many genres. Of course I’m posting a little later this year than last (more time for books to hit sites and catalogues!) but I think a few factors account for the increase. I’ve mentioned two of those factors—ongoing grant programs from the Institute of Translation and the Prokhorov Fund’s Transcript Program—in previous years and know that continued funding plays a big role in helping translations reach readers. A third factor—the Russian Library at Columbia University Press—was new last year, with three books, but has five highly varied books scheduled for publication this year. That may only be a difference of two books this time around but the Russian Library has an ambitious schedule for the coming years.


As always, there are caveats (but not caviar) to accompany the list. This list is just a start—I’ll be adding books throughout the year and making corrections as necessary. Please e-mail me with any changes or additions; my address is on the sidebar. As last year, this is a global list that includes new translations and some retranslations. I’ve linked titles on the list to publishers’ pages wherever possible. Publication dates are notoriously subject to slippage for various and sundry reasons; I transfer books from year to year as necessary and have tried to cross out titles on previous lists if they weren’t actually published in those years. I’ll place a link to this post on the sidebar of the blog for easy reference. I’m taking names and titles for 2018 now, so please feel free to send them in. Finally, don’t forget the Self-Published Translation post: If you have a book to add, please add it in a comment on that page.

All that’s left now is to say happy reading and happy July! Here’s the list:

Alexievich, Svetlana: Boys in Zinc, translated by Andrew Bromfield; Penguin Modern Classics, March 2017.

Alexievich, Svetlana: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; Random House, July 2017.

Aristov, Vladimir: What We Saw from This Mountain, translated by Julia Trubikhina-Kunina, Betsy Hulick, Gerald Janecek; Ugly Duckling Presse, spring 2017.

Arvatov, Boris: Art and Production, edited by John Roberts and Alexei Penzin, translated by Shushan Avagyan; Pluto Press, August 2017.

Aygi, Gennady: Time of Gratitude, translated by Peter France; New Directions, December 2017.

Babel, Isaac: The Essential Fictions, translated by Val Vinokur and illustrated by Yefim Ladyzhensky; Northwestern University Press, November 2017.

Batyushkov, Konstantin: Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry, translated and presented by Peter France; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, November 2017.

Bochkareva, Maria: Maria’s War: A Soldier’s Autobiography, translated by Isaac Don Levine; Russian Life, January 2017.

Buksha, Ksenia: The Freedom Factory, translated by Anne Fisher; Phoneme Media, 2017. This novel won the 2014 National Bestseller Award.

Chekhov, Anton: The Plays, translated by Hugh Aplin; Alma Classics, October 2017.

Chekhov, Anton: The Beauties: Essential Stories, translated by Nicolas Slater Pasternak; Pushkin Press, October 2017.

Chizhova, Elena: Zinnober’s Poppets (I believe this is Крошки Цахес), translated by Carol Ermakova; Glagoslav, July 2017.

Chudakova, Marietta: Mikhail Bulgakov: The Life and Times, translated by Huw Davies; Glagoslav, September 2017.

Dashkova, Polina: Madness Treads Lightly, translated by Marian Schwartz; Amazon Crossing, Septemberish 2017.

Desombre, Daria: The Sin Collector, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Amazon Crossing, October 2017.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, translated by Kyril Zinovieff; Alma Classics, spring 2017.

Formakov, Arsenii: Gulag Letters, translated and introduced by Emily D. Johnson; Yale University Press, June 2017.

Ganieva, Alisa: Bride and Groom, translated by Carol Apollonio; Deep Vellum, September 2017. (previous post)

Gelasimov, Andrei: Into the Thickening Fog, translated by Marian Schwartz; Amazon Crossing, January 2017.

Gogol, Nikolai: Dead Souls, translated by Donald Rayfield; Alma Classics, July 20, 2017.

Goralik, Linor: Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview, edited by Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokur; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, November 2017.

Griboyedov, Alexander: Woe from Wit/Горе от ума, translated by Sir Bernard Pares; Russian Life, June 2017. A bilingual edition of the classic.

Grishkovets, Evgeni: The Hemingway Game, translated by Steven Volynets; Glagoslav, 2017, second half.

Iliazd: Rapture, translated by Thomas J. Kitson; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, May 2017.

Kapitsa, Sergei: Paradoxes of Growth, translated by Inna Tsys and edited by Scott D. Moss and Huw Davies; Glagoslav, March 2017.
Kharms, Daniil: Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, translated by Alex Cigale; Northwestern University Press, February 2017.

Kholin, Igor: Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems, translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, and illustrated by Ripley Whiteside; Ugly Duckling Presse, spring 2017.

Khvoshchinskaya, Sofia: City Folk and Country Folk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, August 2017.

Krylov, Ivan: The Fables of Ivan Krylov, translated by Stephen Pimenoff; Dedalus Books, February 2017.

Kucherena, Anatoly: Time of the Octopus, translated by John Farndon with Akbota Sultanbekova and Olga Nakston; Glagoslav, January 2017.

Kurchatkin, Anatoly: Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait; Glagoslav, February 2017.

Kuznetsov, Sergey: The Round Dance of Water, translated by Valeriya Yermishova; Dalkey Archive Press, September 2017.

Lebedev, Sergei: The Year of the Comet, translated by Antonina W. Bouis; New Vessel Press, February 2017.

Lomasko, Victoria: Other Russias, translated by Thomas Campbell; Penguin (UK) and n+1 (US), 2017.

Maisky, Ivan: The Complete Maisky Diaries: Volumes 1-3, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, translated by Tatiana Sorokina and Oliver Ready; Yale University Press, 2017.

Petrosyan, Mariam: The Gray House (Дом в котором in Russian), translated by Yuri Machkasov; Amazon Crossing, April 2017.

Petrushevskaya, Ludmilla: The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia, translated and introduced by Anna Summers; Penguin, February 2017.

Remizov, Alexei: Sisters of the Cross, translated by Roger Keys and Brian Murphy; Russian Library/Columbia University Press, December 2017.

Sharov, Vladimir: The Rehearsals, translated by Oliver Ready; Dedalus Ltd, apparently September 2017.

Shklovsky, Viktor: The Hamburg Score, translated by Shushan Avagyan; Dalkey Archive Press, February 2017.

Shklovsky, Viktor: Life of a Bishop’s Assistant, translated by Valeriya Yermishova; Dalkey Archive Press, July 2017.

Smoliarova, Tatiana: Three Metaphors for Life: Derzhavin’s Late Poetry, translated by Ronald Meyer and Nancy Workman; Academic Studies Press, September 2017.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: March 1917: The Red Wheel: Node III, Book 1, translated by Marian Schwartz, Notre Dame Press; fall 2017. More of The Red Wheel will be rolling out…

Sonkin, Victor: Here Was Rome: Modern Walks in the Ancient City, translated by Victor Sonkin; Skyscraper Publications, August 2017.

Tsvetaeva, Marina: Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922, edited and translated by Jamey Gambrell; New York Review Books, October 2017.

Various: The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky; New York Review Books, March 14, 2017.

Various: Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, translated, edited, introduced, and with notes by Bryan Karetnyk; Penguin Classics, July 2017.

Vinogradova, Lyuba: Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941-1945), translated Arch Tait; MacLehose Press, April 2017.

Yarov, Sergey: Leningrad 1941-42: Morality in a City Under Siege, translated by Arch Tait; Polity Press, 2017.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny: We, translated by Hugh Aplin; Alma Classics, November 2017.

Bonus Book that doesn’t fit the theme exactly: Robert Chandler’s A Short Life of Pushkin, from (appropriately enough) Pushkin Press, released this summer. (Robert also loves Edith Sollohub’s The Russian Countess, for which he wrote a foreward…)

And because I just can’t help myself, here’s another Bonus Book that doesn’t fit the theme: Croatian War Nocturnal by Spomenka Štimec and translated from the Esperanto, yes, the Esperanto, by Sebastian Schulman; Phoneme Media, August 15, 2017.

Up Next: Well! Now that my unexpected but much-needed post-deadline hiatus has concluded, I’ll finally blog about two novels set in Russia but written in English… and then some books in Russian. Mikhail Gigolashvili’s novel about Ivan the Terrible is very good but reads slowly, very slowly, for me because it’s so intense. At least I want to read it, though: it feels like I’ve abandoned more books than usual this spring and summer.

Disclaimers: The usual because I know so many of those involved with these books. And many of my own translations are supported by grants from the Institute of Translation and the Prokhorov Fund’s Transcript Program, plus I’m working on a book for the Russian Library. I’m grateful to all those organizations for their support of authors, publishers, translators, and, of course, Russian literature itself.