Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Happy New Year & 2019 Highlights


Happy New Year! С Новым Годом! I hope you’re enjoying the holidays, no matter where you might be, and I wish you lots and lots of good reading for 2020!

As in recent years, this year’s reading patterns continued one of my least favorite trends: I suspect I abandoned more books than I finished. On the positive side, though, (and also as usual) I found some that I thoroughly enjoyed and, as a bonus, I found more to like on the Big Book finalist list than in the last two or three years. Here are some reading highlights, which I’m going to keep relatively brief and cursory since I’m getting too hungry to type, let alone think!

Most unexpected pleasures: Two of the books I most enjoyed reading during 2019 were biographies: Alisa Ganieva’s book about Lilya Brik, Её Лиличество Брик на фоне Люциферова века (Her Liliness, for short) and Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The Outsider), written by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky. I wrote about both these books two days ago. The authors’ accounts of Brik and Erofeev sucked me in from the start, both books kept me up at night, and both gave me further reading lists.

Favorite book by an author new to me: Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four) (previous post), a finalist for the National Bestseller Award, wove multiple plotlines and timelines into a wonderfully seamless novel that was apparently inspired by Twin Peaks. Between that and mentions of cats, I was all set.

Favorite book written by an author I’d read before: I thought Anna Kozlova’s F20 (previous post), which won the National Bestseller Award in 2017, was an intriguing depiction of teenage mental illness so was excited to give her Рюрик (Rurik) (previous post) a try, too. A book named for a parrot (and founder of the Rurik dynasty!) has to have something going for it, and Kozlova didn’t disappoint, with this up-to-the-minute account of a runaway teenager’s twisted roadtrip.

The book that really scared the hell out of me: As far as reading pleasure and horror (what a combination!) go, though, Alexei Salnikov’s Отдел (The Department) really takes the cake (previous post). I loved the rhythms and strange humor of this book and still can’t stop thinking about it. The Department was probably my favorite reading of 2019.

Most authory moments: I was fortunate to have two translations come out this year: Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha (Oneworld Publications) and Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog (Russian Library/Columbia University Press). It was lovely to see Guzel (as well as other friends and colleagues) in London and New York City for Read Russia events – Guzel is always fun to talk with and it’s a pleasure to see the success of her books. I miss Margarita terribly, though, and am sorry she’s not here to tell about some of the insightful comments and reviews I’ve read about Klotsvog, a book that has long been a favorite.

Etc.: English-language books also brought some good reading and I’ll be writing soon about Jennifer Croft’s Homesick and Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water, both of which stood out… this year’s list of translations into English has grown a bit… and I remain eternally optimistic that more books by women will be translated in the coming years…

The decade’s translations: Olga Zilberbourg asked if I might be able to compile a list of noteworthy translations from the last decade. I said I could, though that turned out to be a more difficult task than I’d anticipated! Even looking at only contemporary fiction and even selecting only books that I’d consider successful pieces of literature in Russian, the list got big. Too big. And it got bigger when I thought of adding some books I haven’t read but should read. If I had to pick just a very few, though, I think I’d choose Day of the Oprichnik (Vladimir Sorokin/Jamey Gambrell, FSG), Maidenhair (Mikhail Shishkin/Marian Schwartz, Open Letter), Catlantis (Anna Starobinets/Jane Bugaeva, Pushkin Press/NYRB), Land of the Stone Flowers (Sveta Dorosheva/Jane Bugaeva, Chronicle Books), and Oliver Ready’s translations of Vladimir Sharov’s novels for Dedalus Books. I’ve purposely chosen a varied set of books because I think the very fact of that varied set of books a selection that includes a book for children and a book like Land of the Stone Flowers, which is difficult to classify – is important to bringing Russian books to a diverse readership. (I decided to keep my own books off that list...)

With that cheery note about translations (since I like ending on cheery notes, particularly when translations are involved!), I want to wish everyone a very happy New Year and lots more good reading in 2020!

Disclaimers: The usual. I received some books mentioned above from publishers, literary agents, and other sources. Thank you to all! Special thanks to Read Russia for bringing me to New York and London this year for events.

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

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Two Biographies: Venedikt Erofeev and Lilya Brik

Ah, biographies! I read so few biographies – until the two under discussion today, I think my last was Charles J. Shields’s And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, which I wrote about in 2011 for my other bookshelf blog – that I feel utterly incapable of explaining much about why I so enjoyed Alisa Ganieva’s book about Lilya Brik, Её Лиличество Брик на фоне Люциферова века (more on the title below) and Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The Outsider), written by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky (henceforth “The Troika”). Sure, I’m exaggerating: I know why I enjoyed them – the authors imposed structure, created and developed solid story arcs, and effectively combined history and human interest – but I lack the vocabulary and experience to write a nuanced critical piece about them.

Perhaps resorting to my first line of that old post about the Vonnegut book is a good start since it helps explain the attraction of the books about Brik and Erofeev:
Charles J. Shields’s And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life tells the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., story in a way that makes Vonnegut’s life feel like a strangely everyday epic, making Vonnegut, to borrow a term from Russian literature, a hero of his time, someone emblematic of his generation.
Both The Outsider and what I’ll call Her Liliness (Ganieva’s title plays on the word “величество,” “majesty,” per the Oxford Russian dictionary, and the name Lilya, setting it against the backdrop of a Luciferian century) also describe their subjects as (anti?)heroes of their times. Brik (1891-1978) is part of the Russian avant-garde beginning in her early adulthood in the early twentieth century and Erofeev (1938-1990) is a more underground figure, expelled from multiple post-secondary institutions, and often lacking the official Soviet-era documentation one needs to prove one isn’t a camel. Brik’s life is relatively cushy, at least on a certain material level: among other things, as Vladimir Mayakovsky’s muse, she successfully asks the poet to procure gifts (including a car!) from France, and she helps other artists develop their work, too. Erofeev – there’s a reason he’s called “the outsider” – enjoys evading the Soviet system, though his dependence on alcohol complicates discussion of freedom in his life.

The Outsider and Her Liliness both work because their authors draw so effectively on material from interviews as well as other books and materials about or by their subjects. Ganieva quotes Swedish slavist Bengt Jangfeldt quite a lot (his Mayakovksy biography, for example, which was translated into English by Harry D. Watson) and nearly twenty pages of endnotes cite sources including Viktor Shklovsky, Elsa Triolet, and correspondence between Brik and Mayakovsky. The dishiness of Ganieva’s book comes largely from those sources, with, as a random example from my notes, actress Faina Ranevskaya saying that Lilya Brik told her she only wanted to be with her husband, Osip Brik, and would have given up Mayakovsky. That, combined with a score of other factors – affairs and marriages, conflicts (Shklovsky called Lilya a “дура” (fool) and “bourgeois”), rights and royalties and Mayakovsky’s work, plus allegations of working for the security services – leads Ganieva herself (who makes sure to present positive aspects of Lilya’s role in the literary community) to sum up Lilya’s whole life as “материал для сплетен,” which I noted down as “gossip fodder.” Nothing in the book feels overly lurid to me (heartless or tactless, sure) given the traumas of Stalin-era repression.

The Troika, too, assembles an impressive collection of materials showing various angles on Erofeev’s life, quoting poets, friends, literary figures, and Erofeev’s own works. Most appealing: they alternate chapters about Erofeev’s life with chapters about Moscow-Petushki, his best-known work. (Confession: I didn’t read the M-P chapters as carefully as the more biographical chapters since I read M-P some years ago. But I’m hoping, even planning, to reread the poem, perhaps in 2020, along with The Troika’s detailed analysis.) It’s hard to sort through my notes on The Outsider since I read it electronically but paging through, I find and remember, for example, mentions of Erofeev’s love of folk songs; his ability to recite seemingly endless memorized poetry; a mention that Mikhail Bakhtin compared M-P with Gogol’s Dead Souls, plus, of course, numerous comments on Erofeev’s brand of freedom. I particularly focused on quotes from poet Olga Sedakova, who so respected Erofeev’s freedom – from the whole world, not just the Soviet world, as she puts it – and who credits him for teaching her about life. And then there’s the drinking, an integral part of Erofeev’s life and work (oh, the drinks in M-P!), which to my twisted mind, somehow correlates with something Viktor Kulle notes (I’ll summarize): the main enigma (загадка) about Erofeev is that he was an “antiperfectionist” by nature but M-P is a perfectionist text.

As I look back on what I’ve written, I realize that what I haven’t mentioned is the reason these two books made such strong impression on me: they aroused my curiosity. They read like dreams because they’re written well and tell stories about people who interested me from the start. But both Ganieva and The Troika use sources and describe lives and times such that I want to explore, to read more, to understand. To read more Mayakovsky (including in James Womack’s wonderfully lively and, truly, inspiring translations), to finally read Shklovsky’s Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (written to none other than Elsa Triolet, Lilya Brik’s sister), to read Triolet’s Goncourt Prize-winning A Fine of 200 Francs, to reread Moscow-Petushki, to read Erofeev’s Записки психопата (Notes of a Psychopath), and to read some of Olga Sedakova’s work, particularly since I have a nice collection, In Praise of Poetry, which contains translated (thanks to Caroline Clark, Ksenia Golubovich, and Stephanie Sandler) poems and writings about poetry, and which Open Letter sent to me five years ago. I may be a lousy critic of biographies but I can’t think of a higher form of praise than to say these two biographies piqued my curiosity.

Up Next: Goodbye to 2019, those books in English I keep promising, Rage, and, some month or other, Mikhail Elizarov’s big, thick, carnivalesque Earth, which is about death, the funeral business, being alive, and just about everything else.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I received an electronic copy of The Outsider from the Big Book Award: The Outsider, which won the jury’s first prize, was one of my top two picks. I received a copy of James Womack’s Mayakovsky collection from Fyfield Books/Carcanet Press. I know Alisa Ganieva a bit.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

2019 Big Book Winners: Erofeev, Savely, and Volga Children

I was excited to see voting results yesterday morning for this year’s Big Book Award. The top winner was the troika of Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky for their biography Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The Outsider). The Outsider is one of the most compelling books I’ve read this year and is one of two books that tied for my top marks. I’ll be writing about The Outsider very soon so for now will just leave you (yet again!) with a line from Oliver Ready’s review for The TLS about the book, “In fact, this is not one biography but two, for between each chapter comes an interlude devoted to Moskva- Petushki.”


Second place went to Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post), a favorite from last year that tied as my other top book. Guzel Yakhina took third place for Дети мои (Children of the Volga), a blend of history and fairy tale motifs in a novel about a Volga German man and his daughter.

Readers’ voting results were a bit different, with Yakhina winning, Sluzhitel’ coming in second, and Evgeny Vodolazkin taking third for his Брисбен (Brisbane), a novel about a virtuoso guitarist coming to terms with a serious medical condition.

I’ve already mentioned that I thought the 2019 Big Book finalists were a big improvement over the last several shortlists. Looking back at this year’s list (previous post), I’m reminded of how much I enjoyed some of the books that didn’t win any awards at all, especially Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina (previous post) and Alexei Sal’nikov’s Indirectly, but also parts or aspects of almost all the others. Not everything was to my taste, of course (fortunately!), but this was a year when I saw merit in every single book. I’m crossing my fingers that next year’s lists will be even better and particularly hope more women will make the shortlist. Guzel Yakhina, Linor Goralik, and Evgenia Nekrasova certainly did their part representing women this year with three very different works, but I’d love to see more recognition for some of the other women writing good books. This is particularly important given the Big Book’s relatively high visibility.

Edits: The voting results are detailed on the Год литературы site here.

Up Next: The Erofeev and Brik biographies, which I’ll write about together. Bulat Khanov’s Гнев (Rage or Fury or something similar…).

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’m a voting member of the Literary Academy, the Big Book Award’s very big jury. I’ve translated books by two of this year’s award winners and know other authors whose books were finalists.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Russian-to-English Translations for 2019

It’s not quite December but I’ve decided to post this year’s list of new Russian-to-English translations. If I’ve counted correctly (something I cannot guarantee), the list contains 49 50 52 53 54 books. I’m sure that number will change (upward, I hope) in the coming days. And weeks, months, and years: these lists are never finished.

This year’s total is down from last year’s 67 (previous post) but still up a bit from 2017’s 47 (previous post). One reason for the decrease is that I’m not listing new reprints/editions of existing translations. Another factor [which I’ve edited heavily] that probably has more of a psychological effect than a statistical effect at this point: I noticed that Glagoslav looks to have released in 2019 a couple of titles that were on lists in past years (such as the Grishkovets book below, which was first listed in 2017) and thus (if only in my twisted perception as compiler of these lists!) even if numbers aren’t that different, it appears there are fewer from-the-Russian titles this year since some of them have long been familiar; at the same time, it also appears they’re increasing their work on translations from other languages, though I confess I don’t track those translations closely enough to say this is anything but my own impression. I also wonder if those non-Russian titles are featured more prominently after Glagoslav changed its site design. Which leads me to another point... Finally, some publishers have reworked their sites and it sometimes feels like there were fewer pages specifically dedicated to new releases, making them harder to fine; of course many sites’ search functions don’t always return useful lists when asked about “Russia” or “Russian.” All this means I’m pretty content finding forty-nine books. I should also add that I’ve been lax about the tedious task of moving books on the 2018 list that apparently (“apparently” since soft releases seem to have become more common) weren’t released until 2019; that probably gives a plus/minus factor of several books. (I may shift some of those later but for now my preferred form of correction has been on adding titles to old posts after learning of books I missed in years past.)

In terms of positives for 2019, it’s nice to see more children’s books again this year. (Two series!) I’m disappointed, though, that the share of books translated by women doesn’t seem to have risen much, though at least it doesn’t look it’s dropped. Fifteen out of forty-four books authored by only one person were written by women and at least four out of the five written by “various” had at least one woman on the author list. These lists are dynamic enough – not to mention plenty incomplete – that I wouldn’t want to make too much of any of these data. I was going to add that I’m disappointed that there aren’t more works of contemporary Russian fiction on the list. But then I scrolled down and realized the variety is better than I thought. And 2020 already looks interesting, too; I’ve started a list for next year.

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 some of the translations on the list. And for making it a little easier to compile my annual lists. This year I also had a nice assist from a list put together by Hilah Kohen for Meduza: in January I shared my then-nascent 2019 list with her when she was gathering titles for a very eclectic list of Russia-related books, many of which are translations. She credits lots of our colleagues for contributing suggestions and I highly recommend browsing her list. Some of the publication dates have slipped but that just gives us something to look forward to in 2020.

I’ll finish, as usual, with some caveats and admin notes related to the list. This list is just a start; I’m always happy to add titles I’ve missed. Please e-mail me with changes/errors or additions; my address is on the sidebar. NB: I now list only new translations. 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 2020 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 be happy to approve it.

Enjoy your reading!

Aleshkovsky, Yuz: Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage, translated by Duffield White, edited by Susanne Fusso; Columbia University Press, Russian Library, June 2019.

Alexievich, Svetlana: Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; Penguin, July 2019.

(Brianchaninov) St. Ignatius : The Refuge: Anchoring the Soul in God, translated by Nicholas Kotar; Holy Trinity Publications, December 2019.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor: Crime and Punishment, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and edited by Sarah J. Young; Oxford University Press, June 2019.

Egunov-Nikolev, Andrei: Beyond Tula: A Soviet Pastoral, translated by Ainsley Morse; Academic Studies Press, May 2019.

Gandlevsky, Sergey: Illegible, translated by Suzanne Fusso; Cornell University Press, November 2019. Background on this novel.

Gogol, Nikolai: And the Earth Will Sit on the Moon, translated by Oliver Ready; Pushkin Press, December 2019.

Gorbachev, Mikhail: On My Country and the World, translated by George Shriver; Columbia University Press, December 2019.

(Gribanovsky) Metropolitan Anastasy: Conversations With My Heart: Contemplations on God and the World, translated by Nicholas Kotar; Holy Trinity Publications, 2019.

Grishkovets, Evgeni: The Hemingway Game, translated by Steven Volynets; Glagoslav Publications, 2019.

Grossman, Vasily: Stalingrad, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler; New York Review Books, June 2019.

Kandinsky, Wassily: Sounds, translated and introduced by Elizabeth R. Napier; Yale University Press, October 2019.

Khemlin, Margarita: Klotsvog, translated by Lisa C. Hayden; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, August 2019.

Khodasevich, Vladislav: Necropolis, translated by Sarah Vitali; Columbia University Press, Russian Library, May 2019.

Kollontai, Alexandra: Writing Through Struggle, translated by Cathy Porter; Haymarket. (I’m not sure what happened to this title and am going to strike it for now.)

Lebedev, Sergei: The Goose Fritz, translated by Antonina W. Bouis; New Vessel Press, 2019.

Litvina, Alexandra: The Apartment: A Century of Russian History, translated by Antonina W. Bouis; Abrams Books for Young Readers, November 2019. Illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya. This looks like a good one for kids of all ages!

Medvedev, Sergei: The Return of the Russian Leviathan, translated by Stephen Dalziel; Polity Press, November 2019.


Medvedeva, Doba-Mera: Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva, translated by Alice Nakhimovsky, edited by Nakhimovsky and Michael Beizer; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Monastyrski, Andrei: Elementary Poetry, translated by Brian Droitcour and Yelena Kalinsky with a preface by Boris Groys; Ugly Duckling Presse, December 2019.

Novikov, Dmitry: A Flame Out at Sea, translated by Christopher Culver; Glagoslav Publications, 2019.

Osipov, Maxim: Rock, Paper, Scissors, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson; New York Review Books, April 2019.

Pasternak, Boris: Doctor Zhivago, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater; The Folio Society, 2019. (This is a limited special edition book.)

Pavlova, Karolina: A Double Life, translated by Barbara Heldt; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, August 2019.

Poliakova, Zinaida: A Jewish Woman of Distinction: The Life and Diaries of Zinaida Poliakova, by ChaeRan Y. Freeze and translated by Gregory L. Freeze; Brandeis University Press, 2019. This book is a bit of a cheat since it’s not just translated material but it sounds too interesting to leave off the list!

Polonskaya, Anzhelina: To the Ashes, translated by Andrew Wachtel; Zephyr Press, 2019.

Rubina, Dina: Leonardo’s Handwriting, translated by Melanie Moore; Glagoslav Publications, late 2019.

Savinkov, Boris: Pale Horse, translated by Michael R. Katz; University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019.

Seisenbayev, Rollan: The Dead Wander in the Desert, translated by John Farndon and Olga Nakston; Amazon Crossing, 2019.

Sentsov, Oleg: Life Went on Anyway, translated by Uilleam Blacker; Deep Vellum, October 2019.

Slavnikova, Olga: The Man Who Couldn’t Die, translated by Marian Schwartz; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, January 2019.

Soloviev, Vladimir: The Karamazov Correspondence: Letters of Vladimir S. Soloviev, translated by Vladimir Wozniuk; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 2, translated by Marian Schwartz; University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.

Starobinets, Anna: A Predator’s Rights: A Beastly Crimes Book, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover, January 2019

Starobinets, Anna: Claws of Rage, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover, September 2019. More beastly crimes.

Starobinets, Anna: The Plucker, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover, October 2019. Beastly crimes again!

Stonov, Dmitry: The Raskin Family, translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

(Taushev), Archbishop Averky : Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, translated by Nicholas Kotar, edited by Vitaly Permiakov; Holy Trinity Publications, 2019.

Tazhi, Aigerim: Paper-Thin Skin, translated by James Kates; Zephyr Press, May 2019.

Tolstoy, Leo: Lives and Deaths, translated by Boris Dralyuk; Pushkin Press, November 2019.

Tretyakov, Sergei: I Want a Baby and Other Plays, translated by Robert Leach and Stephen Holland; Glagoslav Publications, 2019.

Tynianov, Yuri: Permanent Evolution: Selected Essays on Literature, Theory and Film, translated by Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko, with an introduction by Daria Khitrova; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Ulitskaya, Ludmila: Jacob’s Ladder¸ translated by Polly Gannon; FSG, July 2019.

Utkin, Alexander: The Water Spirit, translated by Lada Morozova; Nobrow, 2019. This is a graphic novel, the second in the “Gamayun Tales” series, for children, drawn and written by Utkin.

Utkin, Alexander: Tyna of the Lake, translated by Lada Morozova; Nobrow, 2019. A third installment of “Gamayun Tales.”

Various: New Russian Drama, edited by Maksim Hanukai and Susanna Weygandt; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, August 2019.

Various: The Predictability of the Past: Three Contemporary Russian Plays, translated and edited by Alexander Rojavin; Three String Books/Slavica, 2019.

Various: 21: Russian Short Prose from an Odd Century, edited by Mark Lipovetsky and translated by a very good “various”; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Various: A Life Replaced, written/translated by Olga Livshin; Poets & Traitors Press, 2019. Original poetry by Livshin along with her translations of Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman.

Various: Russian Stories, edited by Christopher Keller, translator list unclear; Everyman’s Library, 2019. This collection includes 25 stories, “Pushkin and Gogol to Tatyana Tolstaya and Svetlana Alexievich.”

Various: Cold War Casual, edited and translated by Anna Krushelnitskaya; Front Edge Publishing, 2019. Bilingual; oral history/interviews on the Cold War.
Yakhina, Guzel: Zuleikha, translated by Lisa Hayden; Oneworld Publications, February 2019.

Yesenin, Sergei: The Last Poet of the Village, translated by Anton Yakovlev; Sensitive Skin Books, 2019. A bilingual book.

Zviagentsev, Alexander: The Nuremberg Trials, translated by Christopher Culver; Glagoslav, 2019.

Zygar, Mikhail: Eyewitness 1917: The Russian Revolution as it Happened, translated by Rose France and Lev Shtutin, I believe; Fontanka, 2019. Click through on the title link (which will take you to Pushkin House) to learn more about this book, which should appeal to anyone who enjoyed Project 1917.

!!Bonus Listings!!
I can’t help but include a few bonus listings from Central Asian languages, translated by either Shelley Fairweather-Vega or Christopher Fort. I want to add that Shelley (a friend and colleague) translates from the Russian, Uzbek, and Kazakh, and translated each of the books listed below using multiple versions that always included either Uzbek or Kazakh manuscripts. There’s an interesting essay by Fort about his translation work on Cho’lpon here; [edit] see below for his comment noting another book.

Asemkulov, Talasbek: A Life at Noon, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Three String Books/Slavica, 2019. A Kazakh novel.

Ismailov, Hamid: Gaia, Queen of Ants, translated from the Uzbek by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Syracuse University Press, 2019.

Ismailov, Hamid: Of Strangers and Bees, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Tilted Axis Press, 2019.

Cho’lpon, Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li: Day and Night, translated from the Uzbek by Christopher Fort; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Other bonuses: Academic Studies Press has a sampler available for download here; it includes excerpts from a nice combination of ASP’s books on my 2018 and 2019 lists… Cambridge University Press partnered with the National Bureau of Translations in Kazakhstan to produce anthologies of works of Kazakh poetry and prose that were translated into the English from the Russian (after, in some/many cases, having been translated from the Kazakh to the Russian); the anthologies were commissioned by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Culture and Sport and are available for free download… and, finally, to end on an unusual note, poet and translator Katherine Young translated a very interesting-looking calendar: Boris Pasternak: A Poetic Calendar 2020, from B.S.G.-Press Book Company. The calendar contains poems as well as commentary and background by Natalya Ivanova. There’s an article about the Russian-language version of the calendar here.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. I’ve received some of the books on the list from publishers and/or translators and I know many of the translators. Thank you to Hilah Kohen for compiling her list for Meduza! (I wish I’d remembered to use it earlier in my collection process!)

Up Next: Biographies (Brik and Erofeev), two books in English (soon, really!), and then a novel.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Girls Gone Missing: Kozlova’s Rurik and Barinova’s Eve

Where to start? The basics, I suppose: Anna Kozlova’s Рюрик (Rurik) and Liubov Barinova’s Ева (Eve) are both books about young women who disappear, one forever, the other for a hiatus of sorts. Both novels are also described by some readers (and/or publicists!) as thrillers, though after corresponding with a Russian colleague a bit about Eve, I suppose something like “psychological dramas” is probably more apt. Sometimes I think “thriller” puts too much pressure on a book to be a page-turner that has to be read in one sitting. Not that that’s an option for me, given how slowly I read Russian, but Rurik and Eve kept me up at night because I wanted to find out what happened to Marta (in Rurik), Eve (in Eve), and their family members.

Despite the common element of suspense and missing women, the books couldn’t be more different in terms of plot, atmosphere, and tone. I’ve described Rurik as “edgy” (on the first page, there’s mention of how people “пьют, ссут и блюют” – “drink, piss, and puke” – on local trains: the three words transliterate as pyut, ssut, blyuyut, which sounds great but obviously smells awful) with plenty of drinking, sex, a parrot named Rurik, motorcycle riding, and a weird and horrid death. Rurik has tons of verve and a bit of grit, too; it’s both wise and wiseass. It’s a very here-and-now novel examining social mores and wealth (the motorcycle is a BMW, for example, and there’s overseas vacationing) while also depicting the role of the media and Internet in modern life after Marta, a teenager who’s vanished, hitches a ride north with a motorcyclist. She later escapes him (going into the woods, ah, favorite Russian motif!), too, giving two reasons for suspense: a) finding out why she fled the first time and b) wondering if she’ll survive the forest. (Where I was glad there were good insect mentions.) The cast also includes a very modern journalist, a woman who figures everything out, and (of course) there’s a dysfunctional family background.

As there is in Eve: Eve and her brother Herman live with their cold army officer of a father who first has a soldier nanny them – when they go with the soldier into the forest (the forest again!) to cut a holiday tree, Herman’s foot is severely injured by a trap – but then hands them over to their grandmother for care. As an adult, Eve is killed and then, as payback, Herman kidnaps her killers’ daughter and raises her by himself. Told in two timelines, the main source of suspense for me in Eve was in learning how Eve died, finding out Herman’s deep-seated motivations, and seeing what consequences he might face. Meaning: Will he eventually be caught? And why were Eve and Herman so close? Barinova’s writing and plotting are pretty traditional and with Eve’s overall slice of time covering the late Soviet period until the present day, it has a grayer feel, in part because Herman, who becomes a doctor, can’t afford a BMW or overseas travel but also because the novel itself is quieter than Rurik, which felt pretty raucous in many ways. Eve is just plain bleak, though not so bleak that I’d call it chernukha, the dark, dark brand of realism I used to read so much of.

Neither Eve nor Rurik is perfect – both suffer from overly long passages in the middle (thankfully, though, there are no big muddles in the middle) and I thought the feel of much of Eve’s denouement departed too much from the textual logic of everything that preceded it, though the very, very end felt fitting – but, as I’ve mentioned, both books kept me up late, happily reading and wanting to know what would happen next, as decent psychological-dramas-that-verge-on-thrillerdom should. Having relatively recently read Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which I had to ration out to myself; Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, which I devoured in one evening (in Sam Taylor’s smooth translation); and the beginning of Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, which is currently keeping me plodding noirishly on the treadmill, I think it’s safe to say I love novels that play with literary and genre norms, blending suspense and, yes, psychological drama with social issues like loneliness, alcoholism, and class while also straddling the (artificial) boundaries between the (artificial) lands of genre fiction and literary fiction.

Rurik and Eve are similar to those books I read in English: there are broken families and broken social fabrics that essentially generate orphandom in and around transitional times for contemporary Russia, meaning the two books describe personal and social issues while also playing a little with literary and genre norms. Best of all, they’re part of a growing pile of books by youngish writers (Eve is Barinova’s debut) who aren’t afraid to blend – particularly in Kozlova’s case – everything from bits of mysticism and folklore to social commentary and crime. I think I was especially grateful to read two new releases that are so focused on the present-day and late Soviet period rather than the first half of the twentieth century. And to appreciate Kozlova’s sassy delivery, acidic irony, and 18+ content as well as Barinova’s calm, almost plodding and meditative restraint. My biggest regret is that Rurik didn’t make any award shortlists: even with the slight sagginess I mentioned, Rurik feels better composed and more relevant (and interesting!) than some of this year’s other Big Book finalists. I have to wonder if the juries choosing finalists didn’t much admire the edginess and sassiness I so happily lapped up.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received an electronic copy of Eve from Barinova’s literary agency BGS, for whom I have translated a few brief excerpts of Eve. I bought my copy of Rurik, which a friend brought to me from Moscow. I do want to mention how nice this Phantom Press edition is, thanks to Andrei Bondarenko’s sleek design (which both looked nice and made the text especially reader-friendly for tired end-of-the-day eyes) and thick, creamy paper. Bondarenko’s designs always have nice touches: Alisa Ganieva’s long biography of Lilya Brik (published by Molodaya Gvardia, which opted for nice paper, too) was also especially easy on the eyes, both in terms of aesthetics and ease of reading, thanks to Bondarenko’s body text format and graphic elements. Good book design matters.

Up Next: The two books in English I keep promising, Ganieva’s Lilya Brik biography, a biography of Venedikt Yerofeyev, and Evgeny Chizhov’s new book about nostalgia and memory, which I just started.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

2019-2020 NOS(E) Award Shortlists

I so utterly forgot that the NOS(E) Award shortlists would be announced on Halloween – “are they trick or are they treat?” really is the question, I suppose – that I thought a lot about Anna Kozlova’s Rurik and Liubov Barinova’s Eve all week because I’d intended to write about them. I’ll keep thinking (and saving) those thoughts for next week.

As was the case last season, NOS(E) will award two prizes in early 2020: one named by what I think of as the regular jury (members listed here; their shortlist is here) and the other determined by the critical academy (members listed here; their shortlist is here). Both this season’s lists are a bit short on books that sounded particularly appealing to me (e.g. Nikitin’s Про папу, About Papa, the book that’s supposed to make people happy, didn’t make it, meaning I now feel even more driven to read it and determine its joy factor…) and there aren’t many women on either list. (Not that three out of sixteen for the longlist is very good, it’s pretty awful and it really makes me wonder what was nominated.) Plus there’s the usual mishmash of disparate genres, but, well, who am I to complain about that? If I want to like absolutely all of an award’s rules and practices, plus know what books were nominated, I’d have to invent my own award. Hm.

On that all too quixotic note, here are four books that made both lists:
  • Nikolai Kononov: Восстание (Uprising) is a “documentary novel” apparently inspired by the life of Sergei Solovyov, one of the organizers of the Norilsk camp uprising. It’s on my shelf.
  • Aleksandr Dolinin: Комментарий к роману Владимира Набокова Дар(Commentary on Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel The Gift) is apparently exactly what the title says it is. (Sample)
  • Alexander Stesin: Нью-йоркский обход (something like New York Rounds) concerns a doctor’s observations of work with very diverse patients in New York and New Delhi. (Sample) (Review)
  • Linor Goralik: Все, способные дышать дыхание (literally something like All Capable of Breathing a Breath, perhaps? Or maybe “Everybody”? I’m interested in figuring out how to read this title.) The brief description introducing this excerpt says the book concerns a country that’s facing a huge catastrophe and discovers that empathy can be a double-edged sword. A Big Book finalist, too, a book that, alas, I’ve had a very hard time trying to get into.
There are four other books on the regular jury’s shortlist:
  • Kirill Kobrin: Поднебесный экспресс (The Celestial Express) sounds like an interesting sort-of-but-not-really-a-detective-novel set on a direct train trip (seventeen days!) from China to London.
  • Daniil Turovskii: Вторжение. Краткая история русских хакеров (Interference. A Brief History of Russian Hackers. Or maybe Break In? I’m not sure if this concerns the 2016 elections in the US or not.) is a journalist’s account of what’s mentioned in the title. (Sample)
  • Evgenii Chizhov: Собиратель рая (The Collector of Heaven? Maybe something more like Collecting Heaven?) concerns a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who often leaves the house and gets lost, and her son (nicknamed “King” because he’s flea market royalty) who goes out to find her. It’s about memory, nostalgia, and people who came of age in the 1990s. I enjoyed Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Translation (previous post) and am looking forward to this book, which is on its way to me. (Sample) (Review)
  • Sofia Sinitskaya: Мироныч, дырник и жеможаха. Рассказы о родине (Mironych, Hole-Worshippers, and ???. Stories About the Motherland. Oh, that “жеможаха” is difficult, please see my previous (longlist) post, including comments for more in it!) contains three novellas set in three separate times: the Great Terror, the late eighteenth century, and the turn of the twenty-first century. The book’s description claims (in my very loose account!) that Sinitskaya’s following in the tracks of Gogol and (even more exciting) Vaginov… (Review) (Sample)
The other books on the critical jury’s shortlist are:
  • Aleksandr Skidan: In Путеводитель по N. (A Guidebook to N.) the N. seems to stand for Nietzsche! :) In this mock autobiography, N. speaks in the voices of luminaries like Rilke, Dostoevsky, and Proust. Hm.
  • Aleksei Polyarinov: Центр тяжести (Center of Gravity) sounds like a long (though Labirint says it’s only 480 pages so I’ll read it in ten days, ha ha, ha ha) and (potentially) formally complex novel about a journalist, a hacker, and an artist. (Review
  • Pavel Peppershtein: Тайна нашего времени (Secret of Our Time) is a collection of sixteen stories with the author’s illustrations, published by Garage. I’ve been meaning to read Peppershtein’s fiction for years, after reading (and later translating a text) about his work with Inspection Medical Hermeneutics.

Disclaimers: The usual. I had a meddlesome (but very sweet) cat on my lap while piecing these lists together and hope I found and deleted all her additions to the post.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik, which I’m continuing to enjoy (and almost sad to be finishing), and the very interesting Big Book finalist biography of Venedikt Erofeev by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky, where (to my surprise) I think I’ve been enjoying the biographical chapters more than the critical chapters because they’re creating such a vivid portrait of Erofeev.