Sunday, September 16, 2018

Moscow Trip Report 1: Award News, Head Cold Edition

My recent week in Moscow was so filled with literary events that I’m going to split my trip report into two posts. Beyond all the material, I brought home a head cold along with a gigundo pile of books, so a slightly embellished list is about all I can handle today.

First off, Read Russia Award winners for what I think of as the global prize, for translation into all languages:

Marta Sánchez-Nieves won the nineteenth-century category for her Spanish-language translation of Lev Tolstoy’s Cевастопольские Рассказы (Sevastopol Stories), published by Alba. Anne Coldefy-Faucard won the twentieth-century award for her decades of work, in collaboration with Geneviève Johannet, on the French translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Красное колесо (The Red Wheel) for Fayard. Oliver Ready won the contemporary prize for his English translation of Vladimir Sharov’s Репетиции (The Rehearsals) for Dedalus Books. Finally, Kiril Kadiiski took the poetry nomination for his translation into Bulgarian of a collection of poems by Fyodor Tyutchev for Nov Zlatorog. Hearty congratulations to all!

A few award notes… The only other English-language finalist for awards this year was Boris Dralyuk’s translation of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories for Pushkin Press. Anne Coldefy-Faucard was also shortlisted in the contemporary literature category for her translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria. Another translation of Vladimir Sharov’s work was shortlisted: Ljubinka Milincic was recognized for her Serbian translation of Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). The success of translations of Sharov’s work felt horribly bittersweet given his recent death. I felt his passing constantly: in Oliver’s acceptance speech, in discussions with friends who said many couldn’t fathom it (I fit that category), and in the portrait hanging at a bookstore. Most of all, though, I missed seeing him, if only for a brief chat.

On a more cheerful note, it was fun going to the announcement of this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award finalists. Perhaps most interesting is that there are only three finalists from a long list (it did look pretty weak) of forty-three:
  • Aleksandr Bushkovsky for his Праздник лишних орлов (The Festival of Superfluous Eagles is how Yasnaya Polyana translated the title and, well, I’m just going to roll with that given that I haven’t read the book), a collection of stories about friends who fought together in Chechnya but can’t figure out what to do with themselves upon returning home. I’ve seen the Russian word for “eagles” used for distinguished soldiers and since these guys feel lost, “superfluous” feels like it refers back to the superfluous man. 
  • Olga Slavnikova for her Прыжок в длину (Long Jump), a book I find rather heavy with metaphors. Even so, I can understand Vladislav Otroshenko’s enthusiasm for the book given its real plot (the novel does just keep plugging along) and view of the world. I’ve read more than half and plan to finish it for my Big Book reading. Long Jump won the Book of the Year award while I was in Moscow, too.
  • Maria Stepanova for Памяти памяти (I’ll go for In Memory of Memory since I haven’t read it yet), which is on the way in English, too. Like the Slavnikova book, In Memory of Memory is also a Big Book finalist.
For a bit of commentary on the list, visit the Yasnaya Polyana site, here.

And then there’s this, just for fun: a list of hundred of the most important Russian books in the last thirty years. It’s fitting since the second book is Sharov’s The Rehearsals. There are some interesting entries!

Disclaimers: The usual. My head is addled.

Up Next: The rest of the trip report, English-language reading roundup, and Big Book finalists.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Farewell to Vladimir Sharov

I’m very sad to write that Vladimir Sharov died last Friday at the age of sixty-six. Sharov was the author of such novels as Репетиции (The Rehearsals), До и во время (Before and During), both translated into English by Oliver Ready, and Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt), for which he won the Russian Booker Prize in 2014.


I didn’t know Sharov well but I’ve enjoyed talking with him at literary and translation events in Moscow and New York. Beyond speaking eloquently about his books, he was warm, quietly funny, and almost otherworldly. Those qualities – plus an on-the-page version of the twinkle in his eye – somehow come through in his writing, too, bringing a human touch to fiction that can be very dense, often with little dialogue. Sharov was also gracious and generous, giving me an extra copy of a thick collection of Platonov’s letters when I told him I’d translated a Platonov story.

I’ll be writing more about Sharov and his Rehearsals this fall. I’ve heard much (very lavish) praise for The Rehearsals among Russian friends who read a lot of contemporary fiction but I think I’m failing the book because my memories from Russian history courses are now so hazy and my religious background has always been worse than slipshod. Despite not making those big picture connections, I love the theatricality in The Rehearsals, the plot possibilities of a Second Coming are appealing, I sense Sharov’s twinkling eye in the humor, and Oliver’s translation both reads very well and compares beautifully with the Russian book, which Sharov was kind enough to give to me after we participated in a roundtable discussion at the Brooklyn Public Library. That’s a fair bit but my gaping knowledge gaps mean I can’t appreciate the book properly, particularly given the fact that I feel like I’m still (very, very slowly) finding my way around Sharov’s world, a place that’s wildly different from what I find in most of the books I read. Finding my way around that world feels all the more important to me now, so I’m looking at some remedial reading as a way to continue learning from Sharov. I’m grateful to him for our conversations and will very much miss seeing him when I visit Moscow next month.

Disclaimers: The usual. Thank you to Dedalus Books for a review copy of The Rehearsals. The Dedalus page about the book includes lengthy excerpts from reviews; the reviews by Michael Orthofer and Jamie Rann very aptly get at the novel’s rewards.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Cats Are Not People, Too: Sluzhitel’s Savely’s Days

Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (literally Savely’s Days) came as a bit of a surprise, despite hearing a rave recommendation from Evgeny Vodolazkin months before the book came out. I’m pretty picky about animal books – though I read Charlotte’s Web a million times as a child and loved Anna Starobinets’s Catlantis a few years ago – but Sluzhitel’s novel, narrated by a male cat named Savely (diminutive Savva), who was likely named for a brand of tvorog, is so affecting and charming (a word I rarely use) that it made me smile, laugh, and even sob. Savva’s story isn’t just a chronicle of a cat’s life, it’s also a love letter to Moscow (something I’d felt in my reading and was happy to see Sluzhitel’ confirm in this interview) and a bittersweet story of kinship, friendship, and separations. Sluzhitel’s writing is complemented by atmospheric black-and-white illustrations from Aleksandra Nikolaenko, winner of last year’s Russian Booker Prize.


And so. As the novel’s title indicates, Savva, a very literate and literary cat, tells his life story, beginning with memories from the womb, birth in a Zaporozhets, and early life in a Chiquita banana box. Savva’s childhood is pretty happy, featuring food from benefactors, regular visits to see his aunt (who lives in a front-loading washing machine), and good relationships with his sisters and mother. His upbringing is solid: his mother tells him that cats don’t really have nine lives so there’s no sense in taking chances by walking in front of motorized transportation. Savva loses touch with his family after a well-meaning human takes him in. He’s not particularly happy in his new life despite nice possessions like a laser mouse, scratchers, and rubber balls, not to mention a Sunday ritual of climbing into a tea pot. He ends up bolting on the way to a vet visit (he’s already been neutered), leaving Vitya, a bookish teenager who’s something of an outcast, catless.

I didn’t count the major changes in Savva’s tale but he cycles through quite a few lives in the book (I’ll go lightly to avoid spoilers), serving as a rat catcher at the Tretyakov Gallery and having to co-habit, albeit briefly, with a parrot named Iggy, a situation not fated to end well. My favorite of Savva’s hosts is a young Kirgiz man who rescues Savva after he’s attacked and left badly injured. After Askar is fired from his job at Gorky Park (there’s been smoking…) he finds work as a bicycle deliveryman and brings Savva with him. (They even deliver food to a theater in a scene that seems to include Sluzhitel’ in a cameo appearance.) Beyond additional lovely descriptions of Moscow during that period – the city filled with morning sun, puddles drying after a night downpour, everything looking harmonious and beautiful, a look I love so much – Askar, a migrant living under tenuous conditions with friends who’ve pooled their money for Savva’s care and feeding, was my favorite of the human characters in the novel. That’s partly because of his big heart but I also wonder if I found Askar (and the last pair of people who care for Savva) the most convincing or fitting of the humans in the book because he lives on the margins of contemporary Moscow life, giving him something in common with Savva, who’s a wanderer. Savva wants to see the world (or at least Moscow) and even gives the impression of being something of an existentialist with a phobia for commitment, too. At least, that is, until he meets a beautiful young cat, in some of the book’s nicest passages.

I could go on and on about favorite passages – why Savva’s fired from the Tretyakov, psychedelic experiments with valerian tooth drops, or his life in a doghouse with his love and a dog – but will sum up by agreeing with Vodolazkin’s assessment, in his introduction to Savely’s Days, that Sluzhitel’ draws on his acting skills and becomes a full-fledged cat in the novel. Of course that’s all too easy for me to say because a) I’ve never been a cat and b) my own two cats don’t seem to write. (They do read and translate with me, though, so perhaps they’re holding out on us?) Sluzhitel’ is so good at writing about a cat’s life that, though I enjoyed the entire book, I found Savva’s descriptions of his own life more convincing than his passages about his humans’ backstories. The humans’ stories felt like slivers of a portrait of Moscow in the twenty-first century, but they only really came alive for me when Savva was interacting with his people in some way, by climbing into the teapot, observing Vitya’s grandmother, or making sushi deliveries. Or sitting inside someone’s coat on a park bench during a time of mourning.

Edwina translating Vodolazkin’s Aviator.
Somehow (don’t ask me how since I’m not sure I understand it myself) this doesn’t just feel like a matter of Shklovsky’s остранение (ostranenie, defamiliarization), something else Vodolazkin mentions in his introduction. It feels to me as if Sluzhitel’ isn’t just showing the world from a novel (sorry) perspective. He’s an actor who’s an author (and an author who’s an actor) and channels his inner catness to thoroughly inhabit a character who’s not even of his own species. In doing so, he manages to find an internal logic for his text that makes the feline perspective feel perfectly natural, as if it’s not just a literary device. Savva may be a cat but he can tell a story – an exceedingly rare quality these days – at least as well as he can chase his tail. Maybe I’m too willing to suspend my disbelief and/or maybe I’m too close to cats to be objective, but what makes Savva such a successful figure for me is that, yes, fine, he’s able to read, to understand human dialogue, and to write, but he’s a cat. And he wants to be a cat, to chase his tail, to try valerian, and not to answer to humans. Or to become a human. Just like my two officemates, who often lie on my desk and make themselves available for patting when I’m working on difficult passages (it helps!) but leave the room as soon as I start reading out loud, though perhaps that’s because they can’t relate to my books since I have yet to translate a book narrated by a cat.

Disclaimers: A friend provided me with an electronic copy of Savely’s Days; I’m going to buy a print copy in Moscow next month. I’ve also corresponded a bit with Grigory Sluzhitel’.

Up next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov. I’m also working on my Big Book reading, with Alexander Arkhangelsky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau), which has finally taken a dramatic turn.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Farewell to Vladimir Voinovich

I was very sad to learn on Friday evening that Vladimir Voinovich had died. I haven’t read Voinovich in nearly a decade but I’ve enjoyed his books since the 1980s, first in translation—I believe Richard Lourie’s Moscow 2042 translation was the first Voinovich book I read—and then in Russian, where I think I first read Хочу быть честным (“I Want to Be Honest”), which is also one of the first medium-sized works of Russian literature I read for fun. I read Voinovich most recently in 2009, when I thoroughly enjoyed his Шапка (The Fur Hat) (previous post).

My early reading of Voinovich is certainly one reason I feel a certain sentimental attachment to his writing—his satire was biting and being able to enjoy it felt like a gift—though I’m sure that hearing him read at a very small Moscow gathering in the 1990s helped, too. I didn’t know him or even speak with him that evening but, as often happens after author readings, I felt closer to his work because I heard his voice and saw his mannerisms and reactions. Northwestern University Press’s description of Richard Lourie’s Pretender to the Throne translation sums up, in five words, what I’ve always so appreciated about Voinovich: “dissident conscience and universal humor.”

Voinovich’s death feels very much like the end of an era, though that’s not just because he was 85 and so few writers of his generation are still with us. I’m also afraid that younger readers aren’t as familiar with his books (and books by other Soviet-era dissidents, too) as they might be. I remember lending Chonkin books to two twenty-something Russians during the 2000s: neither had heard of Voinovich but both thoroughly enjoyed the reading. I hope Voinovich continues to be read. I also wish there were an afterlife with a special pneumatic tube for sending us work by departed writers. I can only imagine that Voinovich’s accounts of heaven/hell/limbo would be a lot of fun to read.

Other previous posts about Voinovich:

Up next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov. And Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия, literally Savely’s Days, narrated by a Moscow cat. I’m also working on my Big Book reading, with Alexander Arkhangelsky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau).

Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Who Are You?": Novellas from Vladimir Makanin and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina

I’ve always loved medium-length fiction—long stories, novellas, and short novels, though I may be too loose with the labels—and hold a special affection for Russian books containing works of fiction of varying lengths. I read novellas from two such collections this summer and was interested to find some basic plot and thematic similarities—man leaves city of residence, ends up in other place, has relationship(s) with woman, numerous questions about society and identity arise—that pushed me to write about the two novellas in one post. They are Vladimir Makanin’s На первом дыхании (At First Breath) and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina’s Развилка (The Fork in the Road).


At First Breath has been adapted for film and the main contours of the plot summary on Wikipedia are just close enough to the novella that I won’t bother rehashing beyond saying that a man, Oleg, returns to Moscow to win back his beloved, who’s now married another man. Book-Oleg, however, isn’t really wanted anywhere so he spends his nights all over the place, including at Kursk train station, a favorite spot in Venedikt Yerofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line, in H. William Tjalsma’s translation), plus, I hasten to add, Oleg not only rents out his relatives’ apartment to gypsies, he sells their possessions, too.

At First Breath’s plot feels relatively familiar, quite probably because I’ve read a fair number of Makanin’s other books, including his (much, much longer) Underground or A Hero of Our Time (previous post), in which another first-person narrator wanders from place to place raising questions about identity and society. Oleg wonders as he wanders, too, since he’s in a world where he feels nobody needs him, some amorphous “they” is/are always to blame, and he tells Galya, his beloved, that he’s going to save the world. Her response is, “Знаю. Знаю.” (“I know. I know.”) In a paragraph I labeled “love,” Oleg says he knows nothing about tacky/banal luxury (that being “пошлая роскошь”) but is accustomed to finding freedom in the steppes, a sense of Time on trains, and at least a bathroom in Moscow. What, really, does a person need? That’s what I almost always seem to love about Makanin’s earlier works: a sense of wondering, wandering, tragedy, and comedy about an individual that rises to something larger, something more universal. At First Breath feels like it might have even been a sketch of sorts for Underground; I checked Wikipedia and found that they came out 1995 and 1998, respectively.

Alexandrova-Zorina’s more recent Fork in the Road offers up a reverse scenario: Bagramov, a Muscovite, is driving to a distant town on business and gets stuck, literally, psychologically, and metaphysically, in a blizzard, and the last sign he sees says “Яма” (“Pit”), something he sees as a bad omen. Indeed! He ends up in the pits. This novella reads like the result of Vladimir Propp’s work morphing into Fairy Tale Transformations for Failure, where there’s never any chance of anything resembling a happy ending.

Nothing goes well for Bagramov. Our anti-hero loves telling the hapless people around him that he’s got plenty of money to get himself out of the mess he’s driven into but nobody knows their location (!) so when he calls Moscow he doesn’t know where to ask the operator to send help. His housing with Vasilisa (this is a very marked name but she’s not a beautiful fairytale princess) is infested with mice (there are some grisly scenes), another woman in town claims her husband is in Moscow but he’s dead, and there are even (OMG) shades of the Log Lady. Fork in the Road is filled with the familiar tropes of drinking, the decay of infrastructure, and societal breakdown, and Bagramov is thwarted, even violently, each time he attempts to climb out of the pit. The ending, with a sort of search party, is pretty predictable but it fits the novella perfectly by allowing an additional and literal examination of identity—questions of “who are you/am I?” have been sounding since the beginning—as well as reinforcements of opposites like city/rural, rich/poor, and cultured/uncultured. This is dark, sad stuff but several things differentiate Fork in the Road from the чернуха (dark realism) that was so (un?)popular five or ten years ago: a peculiar sense of suspense (I initially rooted for Bagramov to get the hell out of town even if he had to walk, though I knew the story wouldn’t go anywhere if he did), the feeling of a dark fairytale or at least a morality story, and a fitting absurdity that arises from those first two factors. Maybe ignorance really is bliss? I don’t know how many times I said “this is so strange” as I read Fork in the Road, and that’s a “strange” that covers a lot of meanings and emotions.

Disclaimers: The usual. I once translated a story by Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina for Чтение.

Up next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m still waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov. And Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия, literally Savely’s Days, a novel about a cat that feels especially lovely after these novellas and Lullaby. After Savely, I’ll need to pounce (finally!) on my Big Book reading.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Head-Melting Heat Wave Edition: Short Takes on Short Stories

It seems like it’s getting hotter by the minute here in New England so I’m glad the beach is close, we bought a fairly quiet air conditioner, and I’ve taken a few days off. I think that sets the muddled scene for a post with some (relatively) brief comments about some of the brief stories I’ve read in recent months. Yes, I still prefer novels, preferably long novels with sturdy structures, but I often find there’s nothing better than a good short story for restoring my faith in contemporary literature. My mystical and malleable combination for success is an opening that gives me no choice but to keep reading, brevity, solid internal logic that ties the story’s form to its content, and an emotional kick. On another note, it’s interesting that the two cycles of stories in this post are based on real-life families and I enjoyed them very much, though I often have misgivings about memoirs and, perhaps even more so, fiction that’s obviously based on real lives. That’s because I frequently find that the balance between fact and literary devices (and even thin fictionalization itself for autobiographical fiction) feels uneasy to me, skewing the text’s internal logic. These cycles from Anna Berdichevskaya and Sergei Dovlatov, however, make balance look easy.

Anna Berdichevskaya’s Молёное дитятко (uh-oh, the first word feels like it combines the meanings of “blessed” and “wanted/desired” and the second is a word for “child,” albeit a word that various dictionaries mark as affectionate, regional, and conversational) is a collection of stories about Berdichevskaya’s life, beginning when she’s in utero during the era of the mustached one, continuing to the present, and organized according to the chronological order of her life rather than when they were composed. I only read the first of five sections/cycles in the book—six stories, about ninety pages—because the first story in the second section, set in another phase of life, felt so different to me that I decided to set the book aside to read that cycle separately.

The first cycle carries the collective title “Якубова, на выход!” (fairly literally “Yakubova, to the door!”) and covers notable events like the night of Berdichevskaya’s mother’s arrest—she’s reading Tom Thumb to Berdichevskaya’s brother—as well as her trial, time in the camps, and eventual release, after which Berdichevskaya asks her mother if she’ll always be old now. (Ouch; she feels ashamed for asking.) There’s lots of detail about life as a political prisoner, particularly in one of my favorite stories, “Аккордеон” (“The Accordion”), a love story of sorts that shows female prisoners walking to the men’s part of the “zone” for bath day (every other Sunday), detailing how the women primp by using beets and coal as improvised makeup, and telling how the men watch them even though they aren’t supposed to. I wrote “lovely” (underlined twice) about the story for lots of reasons: the mention of distant mountains and, places that have nothing to do with Leninism, Stalinism, criminalism, or people at all; Berdichevskaya’s ease at slipping in prison camp slang, and the correspondence (via air mail, letters flying over fences) between Berdichevskaya’s mother and a certain Boris. And then there’s the gift of an accordion. I have no idea how much is embroidered or embellished in Berdichevskaya’s stories, though that doesn’t matter to me because I loved reading them for how they feel true in the sense of real, meaning based on events that actually happened and had an impact on Berdichevskaya’s life, as well as true in the sense of artistically right. I got so caught up in them that they inhabited me in a nearly physical way, making them feel more like an experience than simple reading. That doesn’t happen very often. A bonus: one story gets tagged for having “Red Moscow” perfume in its title. It’s popular stuff.

I generally enjoy reading Sergei Dovlatov but his Наши (Ours: A Russian Family Album, in Anne Frydman’s translation) was a pleasant surprise even so. I read it for voice reasons (related to my work translating Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope), choosing this particular collection simply because it was the next set of unread stories in one of my Dovlatov volumes. Ours begins with a great-grandfather in the Russian Far East and ends with Dovlatov’s eventual emigration to the United States, serving up portraits of all kinds of other family members in between. My favorite may well be Aunt Mara, who becomes an editor; Tynyanov, Zoshchenko, Forsh, and Alexei Tolstoy (whom she once inadvertently headbutted in the stomach) were among her authors and Dovlatov includes some little literary anecdotes. I also couldn’t resist the stories about a dog named Glasha, a cousin with theater and criminal careers who only functions well in borderline situations, or the story of how Dovlatov meets his wife, Elena, whom he finds in his apartment the morning after a party because the man she’d arrived with got drunk and left her there. Best of all, though, was reading about the birth of their daughter, Katya, whom I know slightly from literary events, on her actual birthday. Ours contains everything I enjoy about Dovlatov: lots of humor (many pages warranted “ha ha” in the margins), plenty of absurd and tragic tinges, and a distinctive easy rhythm in the writing. I highly recommend Dovlatov to non-native readers of Russian since his language is relatively simple in a way that maximizes the meaning and impact of recognizable words, and he creates an intimate, chatty voice that doesn’t talk down to the reader.

Finally, I also enjoyed Sergei Nosov’s “Белые ленточки” (“White Ribbons”), which starts off with a tick bite during a camping trip—“Ксюшу укусил клещ,” a very k-sounding “A tick bit Ksyusha”—and, thanks to Ksyusha’s concern about encephalitis (who could blame her?), evolves into a story about a trip to find medical help in a not-exactly-nearby town where Ksyusha and her companion learn about mysterious white ribbons that have nothing to do with real-life political demonstrations that came up after the story was written. I find the oddities of Nosov’s stories especially interesting, even charming, because he somehow manages to stay in control (just barely!) of his material even when he wanders a fair bit, sometimes veering into slightly occult—in the “hidden” sense for medicine or metaphor—regions. Given the growth of the tick population in my own sweltering Maine and the existence of a tick jar in our house (it even came in handy for a recent dinner guest who wasn’t sure she’d seen a tick), there’s a lot to be said for a wandering story where a tick bite triggers so much action.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received a copy of the Berdichevskaya book from the organizers of the Russian stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you! Sergei Nosov gave me a copy of the story collection with the tick story, thank you again!

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m still waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And then there’s a Vladimir Makanin novella, a long story by Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina, and Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The 2018 Yasnaya Polyana Award Longlist

The contemporary fiction longlist for this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award contains 43 books, many of which have mercifully brief and translatable titles, something that’s always a plus for this reporter. Late-breaking: I discovered, just as I was finishing up this post, that Yasnaya Polyana posted an English-language translation of this entire list.

Since this year’s longlist truly is long and there’s plenty to mention, I’ll get right to it, listing, in Russian alphabetical order, some books I’ve read, several notable books, plus a few books by authors whose names are new to me (marked with asterisks). I can’t say there are any unfamiliar titles that jumped out and begged me to read them, though I can be a bit slow on the uptake with book descriptions, many of which are (annoyingly) cryptic at best. In any case, the shortlist will be announced in September.

  • Vasily Aksyonov’s Была бы дочь Анастасия (Perhaps If There Were a Daughter Anastasia? YP goes for If Only There Had Been a Daughter Anastasia) was a 2018 NatsBest finalist. About nature in Siberia.
  • Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (Accomplices) is a hermetic murder mystery set in a European mountain house/hotel. The flashbacks did me in because they broke the novel’s tension, but I give Vagner credit for her cast of rather annoying film industry characters, their spouses, and their problems.
  • Sana Valiulina’s Не боюсь Синей Бороды (I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard a.k.a. Children of Brezhnev) contains some lovely description and atmosphere but it didn’t quite grab me. I liked the rhythm of the writing, though, so I set it aside to try again later.
  • Marina Vishnevetskaya’s Вечная жизнь Лизы К. (literally The Eternal Life of Liza K.) also wasn’t quite my thing, with, among other things, its blend of love story, office plankton, political demonstrations, and (the final straw) an appearance by SpongeBob SquarePants. A friend enjoyed this one so I was especially disappointed not to.
  • Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (Rainbow and Heather, maybe? SeeLanguagehat’s comments on a previous post) is a Big Book finalist that sounds like it combines multiple stories, one set in the seventeenth century, the other in 2015.
  • *Marina Kudimova’s Бустрофедон (Boustrophedon) makes me curious because of its title… I never knew “boustrophedon” was either a phenomenon or a word. Anyway, this looks like it’s about contemporary life.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dymov) is a low-key family saga sort of novel that I read ages ago and enjoyed very much. I really will post about it soon!
  • *Marina Kulakova’s Столетник Марии и Анны (Maria and Anna’s Agave/Century Plant) is about three generations of women.
  • *Natalya Melyokhina’s Железные люди (People of Iron/Iron People) looks like a collection of short stories about a village after perestroika.
  • *Bolat Ospanov’s Мой прадед-найман (My Great-Grandfather the Naiman) sounds like a family history/saga novel wet in Mongolia.
  • Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Нас украли. История преступлений. (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes) sounds packed with all sorts of contemporary material, too; I keep meaning to get this one because I enjoyed Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night so much and she so rarely writes novels!
  • Aleksei Sal’nikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu) won this year’s NatsBest plus the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) Award. I found it a bit underwhelming, though want to try it again now that it’s out in print form.
  • Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump), another Big Book finalist, is about an athlete who loses his lower extremities in an accident. I read a large chunk of Long Jump and set it aside—the dense metaphors can get a bit exhausting—but definitely plan to finish.
  • Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory, to borrow LARB’s title translation) is another Big Book finalist; this one’s about cultural history, family history, and (of course) memory.
  • Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мир (Recipes for the Creation of the World), also a Big Book finalist, is so nicely summarized in Galina Yuzefovich’s review for Meduza, translated by Hilah Kohen, that I’ll leave the description to them.
  • *Aleksei Shepelev’s Мир-село и его обитатели (The Village of Mir and Its Inhabitants) is apparently about modern-day peasants in the Tambov region. (Tangent: I can’t hear “Tambov” without thinking of this odd earworm of a song from my Moscow years… Warning: click at your own risk.)
  • Sasha Shchipin’s Бог с нами (God Is With Us) concerns the end of the world but wasn’t quite compelling enough to keep me reading, though it’s certainly very genial.
  • Lena Eltang’s Царь велел тебя повесить (The Tsar Ordered Your Hanging) sounds very good, not to mention complex, apparently focusing on a man who’s been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit; he writes letters home from jail.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Not much other than the usual and that I have received several books on the list, in either print or electronic form, and have translated/am translating work by Eltang and Kuznetsov.

Up Next: From my constantly growing (and groaning) “write about” shelf: I think I’ll start with a short story roundup, move on to the Vladimir Makanin novella and a creepy long story by Yelizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina, then finish things off with full-length novels, those being Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

2018’s Big Book Finalists: Eight Books Sized Up for Summer Reading

The Big Book Award announced its eight-book shortlist back on Wednesday and I still haven’t quite figured out what I think of it other than that I’m grateful not to see any megabiographies. On the one hand, I’m glad that there are two women on the list after last year’s list included zero. On the other hand, I’d have loved to have seen a few more unfamiliar names—and more women—on the list. On some happy third hand that I often wish I had, I thank the committee for naming a shortlist that’s close to genuinely short and is (blogger bonus!) composed of fairly translatable titles.

Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order by author surname:

Alexander Arkhangel’sky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau or something of the sort) is set in 1980 Moscow (think: Olympics) and depicts how the main character is “tested” for stability (think: Cold War). Recommended by a friend. Easily beachable at 416 pages with a mass of 384 grams.

Dmitry Bykov’s Июнь (June) is set during 1939-1941 and brings together three characters and their stories (which apparently cover three genres) making the book sound relatively economical at 512 pages and 572 grams. Recommended by a different friend.

Alexei Vinokurov’s Люди черного дракона (People of the Black Dragon) is set along the Amur River (apparently known in Chinese as Black Dragon) around the time of the 1917 revolution. I’d never heard of Vinokurov so this is a mystery book for me. It’s also very nimble at 288 pages with a mass of 366 grams.

Yevgeny Grishkovets’s Театр отчаяния. Отчаянный театр (Theater of Despair. Desperate Theater, I guess) is labeled as a “memoiristic novel.” The book came out very recently and the descriptions are brief, though the book itself is anything but brief at 912 pages. And at 1320 grams (including packaging) it’s certainly not light reading.

Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (Rainbow and Heather, though is this literal?…) is big, too, at 736 pages (massing out at relatively compact 564 grams) and it sounds like it also blends multiple stories, one set in the seventeenth century, the other in 2015. Lots of friends have recommended Yermakov to me over the years so I’m eager to try this one.

Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) concerns a young athlete who loses his lower extremities when he leaps to save a boy from being hit by a car. Though interesting for its portrayal of the long-term aftermath of the accident (the characters aren’t especially sympathetic and there’s a lot of social commentary), I felt bogged down by metaphors and similes around page 150 and put the book on hold. At 512 pages and 460 grams, though, it’s relatively manageable compared to some of these other finalists, plus I am pretty curious about what happens. Also recommended by friends.

Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (I’ll call it In Memory of Memory, as this LARB interview does) is probably the book I’ve heard the most about, meaning that it also comes recommended, as a book about cultural history, family history, and, yes, memory. This sounds like such a thoughtful book that it feels thoroughly uncouth to give its bare statistics: 408 pages, 546 grams.

Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мира (Recipes for the Creation of the World) is so nicely summarized in Galina Yuzefovich’s review for Meduza, translated by Hilah Kohen, that I’ll leave the description to them. I will add, though, that the book’s cover says “От Парижа до Сибири через весь ХХ век” (“From Paris to Siberia, through the entire twentieth century”), putting me in awe of Filimonov for limiting himself to a very efficient 320 pages that mass in at 375 grams.

Yes, this polleny past week made me a little silly…

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Not much other than the usual and that the Slavnikova book was given to me by the organizers of the Russia stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you!

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: a short story roundup, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And then there’s a Vladimir Makanin novella… and whatever I start tonight.