Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy New Year! & 2018 Highlights

Happy New Year! С Новым годом! Wherever you are, whenever you read this, I hope the holidays have been enjoyable and I wish you lots of good reading in 2019!

Reading in 2018 followed the same pattern as the last several years, with good novels to translate but a dearth of satisfying new books to read. Although I don’t track the numbers, I’m certain I abandoned far more books than I finished. Despite that – and far too many pieces of sad news – there were some nice reading surprises this year, plus great travel and even some positive developments on the translation side of things. Here are some highlights:

Favorite book by a new author: One of my favorite reading highlights this year was Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (literally Savely’s Days) (previous post), which came highly recommended by Eugene Vodolazkin. Savely slinked his way into my heart thanks to his penchant for valerian, love for traipsing around Moscow, and smooth way with words. Savely’s Days would have been a favorite even in a good year but in this lackluster reading year, the book particularly stood out for its observations of people, cats, and Moscow.

Most enjoyable books written by authors I’d already read: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dymov), which, oddly enough, I haven’t written about, is a sort of ensemble family saga novel, a book where characters, psychology, and the little things in life are the focus, (generally) leaving historical crises of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras in the background. The book is vivid and detailed as it flows from generation to generation and it kept me up late reading. I also enjoyed Yulia Yakovleva’s Укрощение красного коня (Taming the Red Horse) (previous post), an atmospheric retro detective novel that plays with genre.

An unexpected achievement: I finally read and finished a Strugatsky Brothers novel, Град обреченный (available in English as Andrew Bromfield’s The Doomed City, Chicago Review Press) (previous post) in Russian! There are plenty of thoroughly repellant characters in the novel but it’s, hmm, intriguing in its own odd way so kept me reading and then thinking, too, as did Eduard Verkin’s Остров Сахалин (Sakhalin Island) (previous post), which got under my skin like some sort of stubborn rash or parasite. (Verkin’s Sakhalin still won’t quite let me go so I was glad that a visiting Russian friend had just read it, too, so we could talk.)

Favorite English-language reading: I seem to have read a higher percentage of satisfying books in English this year than in Russian: Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. is the start of a big, thick novel about a young woman who comes of age at the time of the October Revolution. I also loved Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball, translated by Jenny McPhee, a piece of writing (fiction? nonfiction? both? does it matter?) about Moscow in the late 1920s. (previous post on both) Another good one: Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s Городские и деревенские, known in Nora Seligman Favorov’s very pleasant English translation as City Folk and Country Folk. I described the book in a previous post as “a fun, smart nineteenth-century novel.”

Speaking of translations: I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this year’s list of Russian-to-English translations topped sixty entries (previous post). There’s something for everybody – we’ll see if the 2019 list can come close to 2018’s in terms of quality and quantity!

Happiest things while traveling: Despite seeming to have a reputation as a bit of a recluse (I think living in Maine and burning wood for heat gives that sort of impression automatically) I really do love going to translator conferences and book fairs. This year’s trips – to Moscow for a translator conference (previous posts 1 and 2) , Frankfurt for the book fair (previous post), and Boston for a Slavist convention (post coming soon!) – were especially enjoyable not just for my papers and presentations but for having the chance to see colleagues. Though I should really say that a good deal of this “seeing” colleagues is really the chance to “eat with” colleagues. Thanks to them, “the most important meal of the day” takes on new meaning, eating wurst and French fries in Frankfurt becomes something positively lovely especially under a warm (!) October sun, and late dinners are a perfect way to finally sit longer and, yes, eat slower (food) after rushing around all day. It’s the people I see at these events – translators, writers, publishers, literary agents, event organizers, and even a few people from my distant academic past – who make travel so enjoyable despite jetlag and packed schedules. I’m a very, very fortunate person.

Best acquisitions: My newish Kobo Aura One electronic reader makes it almost pleasant to read electronically even if the device doesn’t particularly like PDFs. And A History of Russian Literature by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler is a great (and gigundo) addition to my library that the good people of Oxford University Press were only too happy for me to take off their hands toward the end of the Slavist conference. It’s already come in handy quite a few times and even the index is fun to page through! Special thanks to the nice Marriott employee who helped me cram it into my luggage for the ride home.

Final goodbyes: Sadly, 2018 brought the deaths of Vladimir Voinovich (previous post), Vladimir Sharov (previous post), and Oleg Pavlov (previous post), all of whom I’ve written about, as well as Andrei Bitov, whom I’ve read so little that I’m not even sure what to say other than something absurdly banal about recognizing his importance. (And that I need to buy a better, newer edition of his Pushkin House – the late Soviet-era edition I have is fuzzily printed on awful paper, making it painfully difficult to read.) The loss of Sharov still gives me no peace.

What’s coming up on the blog: Despite my complaints about 2018’s Big Book finalists (previous post) and the high ratio of “abandons” in my reading for much of the year, things are looking up: I loaded up on books in Moscow and Frankfurt, and have been a much happier reader since my required reading period ended. I’ll also be reading mostly books written by women until mid-March, when I’ll be participating in a panel at the London Book Fair about women in literature and translation. I have quite a shelf of recent Russian books, thanks to my own purchases plus gifts from authors, publishers, and the Russian stand in Frankfurt. My stack of English-language books written by women, many of which are translations from various languages into English, is even larger. Best of all is that I haven’t abandoned a book in weeks: I’m on a roll with Alisa Ganieva, Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Yulia Yakovleva, and Olga Stolpovskaya. On the English side, I’ve been reading Lara Vapnyar and just started Anna Burns’s Milkman today (a gift from one of those wonderful meal-time colleagues I mentioned above). I’m reading Milkman on the treadmill, which fits the heroine’s habit of reading while walking, not to mention Burns’s skazzy writing, with its momentum and flow, as well as plenty of sly humor and word play.

On that cheery note: Happy New Year! And happy reading!

Disclaimers: The usual. As noted above, I received copies of some of the books mentioned in this post from publishers, literary agents, and other sources. Thank you to all! And thank you to everyone who helped with my travel in various ways. Also: I’m translating Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Russian-to-English Translations for 2018

Well, I finally got a little smarter and decided not to post the year’s translation list until late December – it’s amazing how much cleaner the data are that way! I won’t be striking entries for years to come this time around. I can also say for certain that the list has hit an all-time high: 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 books. But watch for changes! I’m sure I’ve missed some books. As always.

As in past years, I have to credit ongoing grant programs from the Institute of Translation and the Prokhorov Fund’s Transcript Program for helping to fund many new translations on the list. Sometimes a listing from grant reporting leads to lots more books, as happened with a title from Holy Trinity Publications that received funding from Transcript: I checked Holy Trinity’s site for that book and found several more that came out this year. Checking a title on the University of Wisconsin Press’s site also started a chain reaction; they published three translations this year.

I think what’s most encouraging about this year’s list is that it’s the most varied I’ve seen since I started keeping track of new translations. There’s a nice blend of fiction and nonfiction, with some children’s books and art books thrown in. Another positive bit of news: I’m already seeing lots of listings for 2019.

Since I’m posting so late in the year, I’ll modify my caveats from years past. This list is just a start; I’m always happy to add books I’ve missed. Please e-mail me with changes/errors 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. I’ll place a link to this post on the sidebar of the blog for easy reference. I’m taking names and titles for 2019 now, so please start sending 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, here, and I’ll approve it.

All that’s left to say now is happy holidays – enjoy the list and your reading!

Akunin, Boris: Black City, translated by Andrew Bromfield; W&N, November 2018.

Amelin, Maxim: The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin, translated by Derek Mong and Anne O. Fisher; White Pine Press, September 2018.

Arseniev, Pavel: Reported Speech, translated by Thomas Campbell, Cement Collective, Jason Cieply, Ian Dreiblatt, Ronald Meyer, Ainsley Morse, Ingrid Nordgaard, Anastasiya Osipova, and Lia Na’ama Ten Brink; Cicada Press, late 2018. I enjoyed Arseniev’s Slavist convention reading very much and am looking forward to reading more.

Averky (Taushev): The Epistles and the Apocalypse, translated by Nicholas Kotar and Seraphim (Rose); Holy Trinity Press, 2018.

Aylisli, Akram: Farewell, Aylis: A Non-Traditional Novel in Three Works, translated by Katherine E. Young; Academic Studies Press, 2018.

Belyaev, Roman: How Does a Lighthouse Work?, translated by Maria Kulikova; b small publishing, 2018. For ages 4-12.

Berggolts, Olga: Daytime Stars: A Poet's Memoir of the Revolution, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Thaw, translated by Lisa A. Kirschenbaum; University of Wisconsin Press, August 2018.

Buksha, Ksenia: The Freedom Factory, translated by Anne Fisher; Phoneme Media, December 2018. This novel won the 2014 National Bestseller Award.

Chekhov, Anton: Chekhov: Stories for Our Time, translated by Constance Garnett, Ilan Stevens and, Alexander Gurvets, illustrated by Matt McCann, with an introduction by Boris Fishman; Restless Books, June. (previous post) I liked this edition a lot!

Chizhova, Elena: Little Zinnobers, translated by Carol Ermakova; Glagoslav Publications, December 2018. (Note: I didn’t find this book on on 12/22/2018 so am unsure about the actual release date.)

Chudakova, Marietta: Mikhail Bulgakov: The Life and Times, translated by Huw Davies; Glagoslav Publications, December 2018. (Note: I didn’t find this book on on 12/22/2018 so am unsure about the actual release date.)

Dorosheva, Sveta: The Land of Stone Flowers, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Chronicle Books, 2018. This is a beautiful, fun, and funny book – I very much enjoyed translating excerpts of this book but am thrilled that Jane Bugaeva translated the whole thing!

Dyachenko, Sergey and Marina: Vita Nostra, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey; Harper Collins, November 2018.

Eisenstein, Sergei: Beyond the Stars: 1. The Boy from Riga, translated by William Powell; Seagull Books, 2018.

Eisenstein, Sergei: Beyond the Stars: 2. The True Paths of Discovery, translated by William Powell; Seagull Books, December 2018.

Ganieva, Alisa: Bride and Groom, translated by Carol Apollonio; Deep Vellum, April 2018. (previous post)

Gazdanov, Gaito: The Beggar and Other Stories, translated by Bryan Karetnyk; Pushkin Press, April 2018.

Gnedov, Vasilisk: Alphabet for the Entrants, translated by Emilia Loseva and Danny Winkler; Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018.

Gnilorybov, Pavel: Moscow Grows: A Book about Moscow -- Past, Present, and Future, translated by Elizabeth Adams, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Jesse Irwin, and Katherine E. Young, with a foreword by Mikhail Afanasyev; B.S.G.-Press, 2018.

Golomstock, Igor: A Ransomed Dissident: A Life in Art Under the Soviets, translated by Sarah Jolly and Boris Dralyuk; I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Gorenstein, Friedrich: Redemption, translated by Andrew Bromfield; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, 2018.

Grinëv, Andrei Val’terovich: Russian Colonization of Alaska: Preconditions, Discovery, and Initial Development, 1741-1799, translated by Richard L. Bland; University of Nebraska Press, November 2018.

Gumilev, Nikolai: Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa, translated by Slava I. Yastremski, Michael M. Naydan, and Maria Badanova; Glagoslav, August 2018.

Ivanov, Andrei: Hanuman’s Travels, translated by Matthew Hyde; Vagabond Voices, October 2018.

John of Tobolsk: The Sunflower: Conforming the Will of Man to the Will of God, translated by Nicholas Kotar; Holy Trinity Publications, 2018.

Kabakov, Ilya: On Art, translated by Antonina Bouis; University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Kabysh, Inna: Blue Birds and Red Horses, translated by Katherine E. Young; Toad Press, 2018.

Krzhizhanovsky, Sigizmund: That Third Guy: A Comedy from the Stalinist 1930s with Essays on Theater, translated by Alisa Ballard Lin; University of Wisconsin Press, August 2018.

Kudryavitsky, Anatoly: The Flying Dutchman, translated by Carol Ermakova; Glagoslav Publications, 2018.

Mandelstam, Osip: Journey to Armenia, translated by Sydney Monas, Clarence Brown, and Robert Hughes; Notting Hill Editions, September 2018.

Mandelstam, Osip: Concert at a Railway Station. Selected Poems, translated by Alistair Noon; Shearsman Books, 2018.

Mandelstam, Osip; Mayakovsky, Vladimir; Vinokur, Val: Relative Genitive, translated by Val Vinokur; Poets & Traitors Press, 2018. This edition also includes original poems by Vinokur as well as his translations of Mandelstam and Mayakovsky. The description sounds very interesting.

Mayakovsky, Vladimir: Mayakovsky Maximum Access, translated by Jenny Wade; Sensitive Skin Books, 2018. A bilingual edition with stress marked in the Russian, plus notes.

Nikolaeva, Olesia: Ordinary Wonders: Stories of Unexpected Grace, translated by Alexandra Weber; Holy Trinity Publications, 2018.

Novikova, Liudmila: An Anti-Bolshevik Alternative: The White Movement and the Civil War in the Russian North, translated by Seth Bernstein; University of Wisconsin Press, 2018.

Ozerov, Lev: Portraits Without Frames, translated by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski; New York Review Books, November 2018.
Pushkin, Alexander: Lyrics (first volume of four), translated by a team led by Robert Clarke; Alma Books, 2018. (Volumes two and three were published in 2020; volume 4 comes out in 2021.)

Rzhevskaya, Elena: Memoirs of a Military Interpreter: From the Battle for Moscow to Hitler’s Bunker, translated by Arch Tait; Greenhill Books, 2018. This sounds especially interesting.

Sergiev, Ivan Ilyich: My Life in Christ: The Spiritual Journals of St John of Kronstadt, translated by E. E. Goulaeff, revised by Nicholas Kotar; Holy Trinity Publications, 2018.

Shalamov, Varlam: Kolyma Stories, translated by Donald Rayfield; New York Review Books, May 2018.

Sharov, Vladimir: The Rehearsals, translated by Oliver Ready; Dedalus Books, 2018. Oliver won the 2018 Read Russia Award for contemporary literature for this translation.

Shrayer-Petrov, David: Doctor Levitin, translated by Arna B. Bronstein, Aleksandra I. Fleszar, and Maxim D. Shrayer; Wayne State University Press, fall 2018. (Aleksandra Fleszar was one of the group/faculty leaders for the summer study abroad program that brought me to the USSR in 1983!)

Smoliarova, Tatiana: Three Metaphors for Life: Derzhavin’s Late Poetry, translated by Ronald Meyer and Nancy Workman, edited by Workman; Academic Studies Press, 2018.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: Between Two Millstones, Book 1, Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978, translated by Peter Constantine; Notre Dame Press, October 2018.

Starobinets, Anna: In the Wolf’s Lair: A Beastly Crimes Book; translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover Publications, September 2018.

Strugatskys, Boris and Arkady: The Snail on the Slope, translated by Olena Bormashenko; Chicago Review Press, 2018. (Total tangent: I couldn’t help but notice that this translation is part of a Rediscovered Classics series that also includes Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, a huge 1940s bestseller that was banned in Boston – I particularly loved it for including plague.)

Sverdlik, Anna: How Our Emotions and Bodies are Vital for Abstract Thought, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Routledge, 2018.

Tarkovsky, Andrei: Time within Time: The Diaries, 1970-1986, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair; Seagull Books, December 2018.

Tolstaya, Tatyana: Aetherial Worlds, translated by Anya Migdal; Knopf, March 2018. Longlisted for the 2019 PEN Translation Prize; fingers crossed for the shortlist! 
Trudolyubov, Maxim: Private Life, Ownership and the Russian State, translated by Arch Tait: Polity Books, 2018. 

Tseytlin, Yevsey: Long Conversations in Anticipation of a Joyous Death, translated by Alexander Rojavin; Three String Books/Slavica, 2018.

Tsvetaeva, Marina: Five Hard Pieces: Translations and Readings of Five Long Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Diana Lewis Burgin; University of Massachusetts Press, 2018.

Utkin, Alexander: The King of the Birds translated by Lada Morozolva; Nobrow, 2018. The first in a series of folktale-inspired graphic novels for kids.

Vail, Pyotr and Genis, Alexander: Russian Cuisine in Exile, edited and translated by Angela Brintlinger and Thomas Feerick; Academic Studies Press, 2018. (There’s even a chapter called “Salad and Salo,” making this almost sound like a “don’t miss it” sort of book.)

Vakar, Irina: Black Square, translated by Antonina Bouis; Buchhandlung Walther König, 2018.

Various: Ten Poems from Russia, edited and introduced by Boris Dralyuk, translated by Dralyuk, Peter France, and Robert Chandler; Candlestick Press and Pushkin Press, May 2018.

Various: Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature, please click through for the list of writers and translators!, edited by Natasha Perova; Dedalus Ltd., January 2018.

Various: Four Russian Short Stories: Gazdanov & Others, translated by Bryan Karetnyk; Penguin, February 2018. Stories by Gaito Gazdanov, Nina Berberova, Galina Kuznetsova, and Yury Felsen. Émigré stories.

Various: Russian Cosmism, edited by Boris Groys, translated by Ian Dreiblatt and others; MIT Press, February 2018. (Please click through on the title link for the list of article authors.)

Various: Russians On Trump, edited by Laurence Bogoslaw, translated by what I am told is a band of scrappy, valiant, and conscientious, but anonymous translators; East View Press, 2018.

Various: Mirror Sand: An Anthology of Russian Short Poems in English Translation, edited and translated by Anatoly Kudryavitsky; Glagoslav, 2018. A bilingual edition.

Various: Fabergé: Treasures of Imperial Russia: Faberge Museum, St. Petersburg, translated by Antonina Bouis; Rizzoli, 2018.

Various: A Smolny Album: Glimpses into Life at the Imperial Educational Society of Noble Maidens, edited by Nancy Kovaleff, translated by Karen L. Freund and Katherine T. O’Connor; Academic Studies Press, 2018. Bilingual edition. The six photos on the Web page make me want to buy the book. (!)

Various: The Tchaikovsky Papers, edited by Marina Kostalevsky, translated by Stephen Pearl, adapted from the Russian edition, compiled, and edited by Polina E. Vaidman; Yale University Press, 2018.

Vodolazkin, Eugene: The Aviator, translated by Lisa Hayden; Oneworld Publications, April 2018. (And I just noticed that the paperback comes out in early January in the UK!)

Vodolazkin, Eugene: Solovyov and Larionov, translated by Lisa Hayden; Oneworld Publications, November 2018 in the UK; May 2019 in the US.

Yakovleva, Yulia: The Raven’s Children, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp; Puffin Books, May 31, 2018.

Yuzefovich, Leonid: Horsemen of the Sands, translated by Marian Schwartz; Archipelago Books, 2018.

Zoshchenko, Mikhail: Sentimental Tales, translated by Boris Dralyuk; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, 2018.

!*!*! And a bonus book, because I loved the Georgian pavilion at the Frankfurt Book Fair so much, because there was an event there about this author, and because so little literature is translated from the Georgian into the English:
The Death of Bagrat Zakharych & Other Stories, by Vazha-Pshavela, translated by Rebecca Ruth Gould, available from Paper + Ink. 

Up next: Alisa Ganieva’s Offended Sensibilities, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped. The History of Crimes, and Yulia Yakovleva’s most recent detective novel. Plus a trip report from the ASEEES/Slavist convention, which was ridiculously fun.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Putting the Apocalypse in the Post-Apocalyptic: Verkin’s Sakhalin Island

Back in mid-November, I noted that Eduard Verkin’s Остров Сахалин (Sakhalin Island) was confounding me – a month later, with the passage of time, I can’t say I see things much differently. Sakhalin Island is imaginative, action-packed (much of the time), and absorbing, though on a structural level it’s an unholy mess, with an uneasy blend of genres, tropes, motifs, characters, disasters, and just about everything else. Of course I’m more than capable of enjoying and even loving overstuffed books that I describe with terms like “diabolical” and “unholy mess,” so I’m not surprised I never considered abandoning Verkin’s Sakhalin, though the book is trying my meager patience today, as I attempt to mentally list the many plot threads running through the book. And, oops, I didn’t pull nearly hard enough on a key plot thread, the one I found least interesting. Underrating that story line resulted in my feeling a bit lost when I reached the twist-and-everything-changes ending and came up short on meaning. (The twist ending, by the way, reminded me of another island novel, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, which also rankled.) I won’t reveal the twist in Sakhalin Island but I will include some minor spoilers in my descriptions of the book.

Yuzho-Sakhalinsk, a favorite place.
So what did I catch and what did I miss? Well, in this world after nuclear war (North Korea started it, the U.S. responded, horror ensued), Japan is the world’s remaining bastion of relative calm and industrialization, and beautiful Sakhalin Island essentially serves as a combination of buffer zone and giant refugee and prison camp. Population: around twenty million. A young woman named Lilac, a student of applied futurology who lives in Japan and is part Russian and part Japanese, travels to Sakhalin to have a look around. She’s armed with pistols, prepared to visit prisons, and planning to somehow learn something about the future, based on the past and present. (Confession: applied futurology and Lilac’s instructions from and discussions of her professor are the plot thread I should have paid more attention to.) Most of the book is told in Lilac’s first-person narrative; her voice is calm, assured, and generally logical, even after she’s begun using those pistols. Seeing that Verkin’s book follows in Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island tracks – many of the same prisons are mentioned and at least one reviewer has noticed similar wording in the two books – it’s only fitting that guns will be fired. Since the island is dangerous, Lilac is assigned a fellow traveler and body guard, Artyom, who is from the “chained to a hook” caste – he carries a large and very lethal weapon. (Verkin also borrows “chained to…” from Chekhov’s findings.)

During their travels together – which begin on a rather luxurious train and end in a stolen boat, with a lot of walking in between – Lilac and Artyom meet some curious figures, including an inmate Lilac remembers hearing at a poetry reading when she was younger, a crawling radical vegan who’s likened to an insect, and a little boy with albinism who has had his tongue and digits removed. Lilac and Artyom take the boy with them on their journey. Verkin also offers up disturbing race-related incidents, descriptions of crazy-making prison architecture, and accounts of what happens to corpses. Though these episodes, many of which are very odd, are important to the story, there’s often too much background information, slowing the pace in a book where seismic activity is most important because it triggers the arrival of a human-made disease known as mobile rabies, MOB, which puts victims into a zombified state that lasts implausibly long.

So, yes, the earthquakes are crucial here, which is why I mentioned “apocalypse” in my title. Not only does earthquake damage release prisoners (including the poet) from jail, it also enables MOB’s zombified (I love that word) victims to cross from the mainland to Sakhalin – on a side note, MOBsters have hydrophobia and avoid stairs, too, which can make retreat easy for the healthy. And so Lilac, Artyom, and the boy are running from rioting prisoners, the MOB ill, and crews they’re sure will come to clean things up after an invasion of zombified MOBsters. If all this sounds like a bit (or a lot) too much, you’re right, it is. And this isn’t the half of it. Even so (or maybe “thus”?), Sakhalin Island got under my skin and by its end, after mentions of an Edenic garden, earthquakes, hellfire, purification, and a second coming, not to mention a unicorn, Sakhalin brought me back to the Bible, to my beloved Book of Revelation. It also brought me to thoughts of innocence (and its loss) among the orphaned – including the maimed boy as well as other children and even adults, including Artyom – plus prisoners, and even Lilac, whose name is so fresh and springy, who wears a protective inherited mackintosh for most of the book, and who almost seems to become a trained assassin. An imperturbable one, too, and no wonder, since danger always lurks and, as a doctor tells her, “Sakhalin is fear. We’re afraid.”

Verkin achieves a lot with Sakhalin Island and my emotions loved it, thanks to my fascination with the Book of Revelation, the very concept of incarceration on an island, the poet (he’s a key figure, pull that thread if you read the book), the various figures chained to objects, the heavy debt to Chekhov (whose Sakhalin I haven’t read but paged through quite a bit), the MOBster zombies who shrink from the stairs our heroes conveniently manage to find, and the awfulness of a world with so much death, doom, destruction, and roasted rat meat. None of that will let me go and, good gracious, part of me wants to reread the book to decipher it. My brain, though, wishes Verkin’s editors hadn’t deserted him: despite her vividness, Lilac’s many prison visits and observations start feeling repetitious and many scenes could have been pared down, while other aspects of the book, like the Japanese poet, the “chained to…” figures, and the relationships between characters felt like they could and should have been given more attention. I realize that Lilac – a social scientist who’s ostensibly writing a trip report but may well be the ultimate unreliable narrator – probably didn’t have enough spare time or emotional energy to take much of that down (even mentally) while escaping earthquakes, riots, and a killer clean-up crew, but a little more balance from Lilac would have meant a better work of fiction for Verkin. I also admit to a bias against being presented with big twists in epilogues – I tend to see them as manipulative. But damn that Verkin, who’s packed so much into this book that I still can’t stop thinking about it, which is, I suppose, a sign that something worked pretty well in Sakhalin Island if the manipulative epilogue trick sucked me in this time around.

Up next: Alisa Ganieva’s Offended Sensibilities and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped. The History of Crimes. Plus a trip report from the ASEEES/Slavist convention, which was ridiculously fun, and a list of translations that came out this year. I’m still taking entries for the list so translators and publishers, please send me a note if you have something to report.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received a copy of Sakhalin Island from Verkin’s literary agency, BGS, with whom I often converse and sometimes collaborate, and whose authors I often seem to translate.

Photo credit: btibbets, via Wikipedia. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

2018 Big Book Award Winners

The Big Book Award announced this year’s winners yesterday evening. The point totals from the jury’s voting were almost shockingly close. Here are some rather rambling (I’m a little distracted as I get ready for a Slavist convention!) thoughts on the winners.

The jury’s top prize (493 points) went to Maria Stepanova for Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory or Post-Memory). I seem to recall admitting to a certain trepidation about reading this book, largely thanks to hearing colleagues’ strong opinions: some loved it (the pedestal factor for books deemed “very important” can be difficult to surmount) but others hated it and claimed their eyes glazed over (I was also warned, as if to doom, that there was no plot… and I do love plot). I read a decent chunk and suppose it’s most accurate to say I fall somewhere in the middle, admiring the quality of the writing but not always fully appreciating the detail and density of what Stepanova writes. Despite that downside – and please note that I wrote “not always fully” – I found something very comforting about the pages that I read, both because of the very fact that Stepanova writes about memory, history, and family, things that are, indeed very important, and because she writes about them in a way that’s both elevated and very engaging. I ended up ranking it in my top clump of books. I plan to read more, very slowly – although sometimes the book feels almost addictively readable, it’s better to read in very small doses, to absorb, even try on, levels of meaning and significance. Post-Memory is painfully difficult to describe – I appreciated a tweet calling it a “meta-novel” – so I’ll leave you with Suhrkamp’s summary and a link to Cynthia Haven’s interview with Stepanova for Los Angeles Review of Books. As well as congratulations to Maria Stepanova and a note saying the book is on the way in English, published by Fitzcarraldo in the UK and New Directions in the US; I’ll see if I can find out who’s translating. Edit: Translator friend and colleague Ian Dreiblatt reports that Sasha Dugdale, who has translated some of Stepanova’s poetry, is translating.

In my biggest personal surprise of the ceremony, Alexander Arkhangelsky won second prize (486 points) for Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau or something of the sort), a novel set in 1980 Moscow (think: Olympics), a time that certainly interests me, though Arkhangelsky’s meandering, slow-burn narrative fizzled, failing to fire my imagination. (Sorry but it’s wood-burning season.) I’d like to say that’s despite Arkhangelsky’s vivid description of Moscow life at the time but I’m afraid it’s because of it: any sense of plot or forward motion gets lost in details, details, details and so much atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere (not to mention an irritating girlfriend who’s not irritating in a good “unlikeable character” way) that I stopped reading at about 75 percent (reading that far was thanks to inertia and misplaced optimism that the book would improve), after nearly drowning in familiar reminiscences that felt more unsatisfying than leftover champagne – structure (or even anti-structure, depending on the book) is as important to a novel as bubbles are to champagne. As so often happens, Konstantin Milchin’s review for Izvestia discusses many of the problems I found with the book.

Dmitry Bykov took third prize (473 points) with his Июнь (June), a novel composed of three very loosely connected stories (long, medium, and shorter). The first piece in June was, by far, my favorite reading on the entire Big Book list: it often felt jarring, disturbing, and uncomfortable to read this novella about war-era sexual misconduct (I’ve purposely chosen a broad term here) during our #Metoo times, particularly since I was reading June during the Kavanaugh hearings. Bykov’s primary characters felt almost universally unappealing to me and the love (?) triangle he draws feels both schematic and real but this long story moves along at a quick clip, with a fair bit of psychological suspense. Alas, I found the second piece dully typical and nothing grabbed me about the third, either, though I may attempt them again later, though that would already be a third or fourth try. No matter, part one of June was good enough reading to land this book in my top picks.

People’s choice voters awarded first prize to Dmitry Bykov’s June; no surprise there. Same for second prize going to Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мира (World Creation Recipes), an often humorous novel that describes family history and is so short that finishing it took minimal effort, even though the novel petered out toward the end and concluded with what felt more like vignettes about Soviet life than episodes in a novel. That may have been the point but, for me, anyway, it didn’t make for especially good fiction. Finally, Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (the one with the difficult title that’s probably not really Rainbow and Heather in English) won third prize. The Yermakov book started off okay enough (despite far too many mentions of Richard Ashcroft and The Verve), with a wedding photographer going on a reconnaissance trip to Smolensk. Mysterious things happen that send the reader back a couple centuries but I grew impatient in the past because of a mishmash of languages that felt rather overdone (so many footnotes!), history, and a lack of steady plot drive. Since this book is so long (736 pages), my “quickly” is relative – I skipped and skimmed my way through several hundred pages before giving up, despite understanding the book’s homey appeal for many readers.

This year’s Big Book finalists were the weakest bunch I’ve seen since I joined the Literary Academy (the award’s jury) several years ago. Is this a statement on the state of current fiction? Did some good books go unnominated? Answers: I’m not sure and I don’t know. Beyond Post-Memory and June, there was only one other book that I thought was at all prize-worthy: Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) is well-constructed, though, for my taste, it’s overly burdened with metaphors (some of which feel pretty forced) and detail, which means that I’ll confess to not finishing that one, either, despite appreciating Slavnikova’s discipline in creating such a consistent and well-imagined set of contemporary characters and circumstances, qualities that landed the book in my top clump.

In other news, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, an author well-known in English translation, won a special award for her contributions to literature. And I’m excited that Big Book began recognizing literary bloggers this year: Yevgenia Lisitsyna, who writes as @greenlampbooks on Telegram, is the winner. I’d love to read her work but oh my, am I ready for another platform?! I may just have to try.

Up Next: Eduard Verkin’s Sakhalin Island, Alisa Ganieva’s Offended Sensibilities, the ASEEES (Slavist!) conferenceconvention I’m about to go to (hence my addled post, hope it makes sense!), and who knows what else.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received Big Book finalist books in electronic form, though colleagues gave me a couple in hard copy at various times, for various reasons.