Saturday, January 12, 2019

Anna Nemzer’s The Round

Anna Nemzer’s Раунд (The Round, I think) is a perfect example of why I don’t like to know (too) much about books before reading them. I knew The Round was polyphonic and I knew a main character was trans, but that’s about it. The Round is a finalist for this year’s NOSE Award.

What I didn’t know about The Round (or maybe never quite processed since I was jetlagged?) is that it covers about a century, is written in what I’ll call verbatim style, and is composed primarily of various sorts of interviews. Some of the characters are based on real people (I recognized Solomon Mikhoels, among others, though not the rapper) and some of what happens feels very up-to-the-minute. I’m torn on how many specifics to mention: on the one hand, they might attract readers but the most news-based line of the plot surprised me, making me afraid of spoilers. So I’ll be vague.

I often have difficulty with fictionalized versions of real figures and current events but Nemzer’s background as a journalist and her use of .doc stylistics – the interviews, some of which even mention an important, real documentary film – give her stories tremendous raw emotion and verisimilitude. The book opens with an interview with Dima, a rapper who’s been jailed for extremism; his girlfriend is now a trans man. And then Nemzer dives into the past, with interviewees who tell of theater and relationships… I don’t think it spoils much to mention that many of The Round’s characters are related, through blood and work.

The Round is described as “оптический роман,” an “optical novel,” something easy enough to see, though I admit I slacked off on tracking the optical thread. Chapter titles fit the theme –Doppler effect, x-ray, laser, etc. – plus one character’s profession is related to optics. Another is losing their vision. And of course we see events in various tellings, from different angles.

The Round had a strange effect on me. The first chapter/interview, with Dima, caught me because of his relationship with Sasha; I wanted, desperately, to find out what would happen. And though the more historical figures interested me less, they also felt familiar and even interesting, thanks in part, to all the years I read a Russian film journal. But what really kept me reading was momentum. The interviews and chapters and characters and their stories kept building on one another, circling around and around. (I think the novel’s title probably refers most directly to rounds in battle rap, as Languagehat suggested in a comment on another post, but a more general sense of “rounds” for talks (or interviews) or even a boxing match also feels pertinent.)

I’ll confess that I read The Round far, far too quickly: sure, interviews read easily because of familiar, colloquial language as well as lots of white space, but I just couldn’t put the book down, zipping through because I had to find out how the characters would end up relating to one another. I couldn’t help myself. (And let me just say that was a great feeling after all my unsatisfying reading last year!) For once, the balance of fact and fiction felt just right and Nemzer’s clever weaving of relationships, times, metaphors, and ambitions – and use of detail – works beautifully for this exploration of human nature, love, cruelty, truths, storytelling, and current events. And I loved the ending.

Up Next: Books by Alisa Ganieva, Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Yulia Yakovleva, and Olga Stolpovskaya. Slavist conference trip report.

Disclaimers: The usual. Publisher Elena Shubina recommended The Round to me and I took her up on a copy – thank you!


  1. This looks like a perfect candidate for "while I am in Moscow, I will only buy one book, and this is the one" deal... I am also trying to go through my library here and decide what to keep... so I better watch out, will definitely look for this one (if I could bring two, I would get Zahhak, if three, probably Brisbane, or one of V's earlier novels).

    1. A belated thanks for this comment, Margarita! This book is pretty good, though, hmm, personally, if I'd only had one book to buy and pack, I'd have been more satisfied by either Заххок or a Vodolazkin. But you know what they say about taste))) Have a great trip!