Sunday, November 18, 2018

English-Language Reading Roundup

This post has been incubating for months so I’ll get right to some quick notes on a few books I read in English in recent and not-so-recent months.

I’ll be honest: I requested a copy of Chekhov: Stories for Our Time from Restless Books because of the art, drawings by Matt McCann. Considering the book’s subtitle, I was also interested in Boris Fishman’s introduction, which does, indeed, address what I think of as the stereotypical Chekhov, plus the earthy Chekhov, with a bit of analysis of Chekhov’s writings (which Fishman confesses he didn’t always particularly love), as well as the relevance of Chekhov’s work in our current troubled times. Fishman wonders what Chekhov might have written about people living under certain political leaders. Ouch, ouch, and ouch.

Which is how I felt when I read the first clump of stories – “Stories of Love,” which included “The Darling,” “Anna on the Neck,” “About Love,” and “The Kiss,” plus “The House With the Mezzanine,” from the “Slow Fiction” section – and felt an old funny sadness and sad funniness all over again. Chekhov often makes me feel like I’m being pricked by a pin, like I’m deflating, but I somehow enjoyed that odd sensation when reading these translations by Constance Garnett, which felt just as decent for the purpose now as they did when I read them in college. (I also learned from this book that Garnett considered her mode of dress “unambitious;” perhaps this is an area where she and I truly are peers.) The book also contains a mouth-watering version of “The Siren,” specially translated for this volume by Restless Publisher Ilan Stevens and Alexander Gurvets: Stevens apparently doesn’t know Russian so Gurvets served as his “informant” and the resulting descriptions of hungry people and food, particularly lots of fish, including sterlet, carp in sour cream… In any case, this volume would make a lovely holiday gift, one I’d especially recommend for readers new to Chekhov, for the stories as well as McCann’s evocative illustrations and Fishman’s gentle, humorous guidance.

I probably would have bought Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball, translated by Jenny McPhee for New York Review Books, for a picture, too, if I hadn’t already known I wanted to read the book: I’ve always loved the painting on the cover, Yuri Pimenov’s New Moscow. Although The Kremlin Ball was never finished (something McPhee mentions in the first sentence of her foreword) I have to wonder if Malaparte’s account of Moscow in the late 1920s feels particularly honest and scathing – even voyeuristic in his gossipy accounts of famous personages, many from the “Marxist aristocracy” – because he never smoothed it. I’m not a big nonfiction reader but The Kremlin Ball (a title that tosses me back to Bulgakov’s account of “Satan’s Ball” in Master and Margarita every time I read or type it) sure kept me interested. How could I not want to read a book where Chapter 4 begins with “One Sunday morning I went to the flea market on Smolensky Boulevard with Bulgakov”? Or where there’s an account of requesting Lunacharsky’s permission (granted) to visit the apartment where Mayakovsky had committed suicide? McPhee’s translation read very nicely (I didn’t feel the anxiety about Russian material that I sometimes sense when I read translations about Russia that weren’t made from the Russian) and the book’s ten pages of endnotes contain some helpful background information.

Finally, there’s Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., which I finished late last winter but which still feels unusually vivid. This eight-hundred-page story of young Marina Makarova’s experiences during and after the October Revolution follows Marina through a storm of personal and public events, beginning with her comfortable upbringing and first love, and moving on to her second love and the collapse of both her country – she supports the revolution – and her relationship with her family. Fitch subjects Marina to ordeals that often correlate in some way to what’s happening around her – there’s violence that made me feel physical pain, for example, and she’s often in near-seclusion – but she also finds love and poetry. (Fitch’s acknowledgements note that translator Boris Dralyuk created “original translations for much of the Russian poetry that appears in this book.”) There’s lots more, including a snowy journey that felt cold, cold, cold and a semi-finale involving mysticism. I write “semi-finale” because I’m waiting for the sequel, which will apparently be out in July 2019.

Coming of age novels are pretty common but Fitch does a beautiful job pushing the genre’s boundaries – I meant what I said about feeling physical pain while reading – by serving up elements of high and low, poetry and the basest of behavior, vermin and astronomy, in a way that remind me of Marina Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus, which critic Viktor Toporov so memorably called «высокое чтиво» (which I translated as “high-class pulp” when I blogged about the Stepnova book here). “High-class pulp” is probably one of my favorite categories (if that’s possible to say) of fiction because I so enjoy reading about the contrasting elements of the earthy (which often includes disturbing scenes) and the cerebral that these books so often seem to present. I should also note that The Revolution of Marina M. is very much a St. Petersburg/Petrograd novel so I particularly appreciated it after spending a short week in Petersburg last November. I’ve gone a bit light on details because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who’d like to read it. For more: The Los Angeles Times ran a nice piece by Fitch last November that offers detail on the book and her travel to St. Petersburg for research.

I’ve also amassed a small pile of other books – all translations – that I’ve read in part and enjoyed very much in recent years but intend to read more of now that I have them in printed book form:
  • Horsemen of the Sands, by Leonid Yuzefovich, translated by Marian Schwartz, contains two novellas, Песчаные всадники (Horsemen of the Sands) and Гроза (The Storm), which I described in brief in an old post. I read a large chunk of Horsemen last year before Marian and I participated in a roundtable discussion during Russian Literature Week and am looking forward to reading the whole thing in print, in a lovely edition from Archipelago Books.
  • The Land of the Stone Flowers: A Fairy Guide to the Mythical Human Being (Книга, найденная в кувшинке), by Sveta Dorosheva, translated by Jane Bugaeva, is exactly what the title says it is and chapters like “What is a Human?” and “About Human Objects and Residences” are illustrated by Dorosheva’s stylish and humorous drawings, many of which are in full color. Jane told me that Dorosheva even changed a few illustrations to fit the English translation: the book’s text (from which I translated excerpts some years ago) contains lots of idioms that can’t be rendered literally. This one’s a lot of fun and I am very happy that Jane had a chance to translate it. From Chronicle Books.
  • Blue Birds and Red Horses, by Inna Kabysh, translated by Katherine E. Young, is a chapbook containing five poems. I’ve heard Katherine read many of her beautiful Kabysh translations at conferences and am glad some of them have made their way into this chapbook from Toad Press.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. I received two review copies: the Chekhov book from Restless Books and the Yuzefovich book from Archipelago Press. Jane sent me a copy of The Land of the Stone Flowers and Katherine sent me a copy of Blue Birds and Red Horses. I bought the Fitch and Malaparte books at a local bookstore. Thanks to Restless and Archipelago for the review copies as well as, respectively, bonus books that look great: David Albahari’s Checkpoint, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and Willem Frederik Hermans’s An Untouched House, translated by David Colmer. I’m wondering if the universe is telling me to resurrect my Other Bookshelf blog. I do think about that. It may happen.

Up next: Russian reading roundup, Big Book Award results and roundup, and Eduard Verkin’s Sakhalin Island, which confounds me in some ways because Verkin piles on plot line after plot line but yet the story is so absorbing and Verkin’s post-apocalyptic future is so imaginative that I can’t help but keep reading.


  1. I read The Kremlin Ball earlier this year and thought it was marvellous. Mind you *anything* which has Bulgakov and Mayakovsky in gets my vote!


    1. Thank you for your comment, kaggsysbookishramblings, and apologies for my late response! I'm glad to hear you also enjoyed The Kremlin Ball -- there's so much to love beyond Bulgakov and Mayakovsky, particularly given Malaparte's wonderful characterizations. (And his invocation of Proust...)

  2. I'm reading The Kremlin Ball now and enjoying it greatly (although I did find some errors...).

    1. I'm glad you're enjoying it (despite the errors!), Languagehat. I thoroughly enjoyed it.