Saturday, February 16, 2019

ASEEES: My Happy Boston Slavist Convention Travel (Late Again!)

I’ve already established in multiple “Up Next” notes that last December’s Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) conference convention was “ridiculously fun,” which was probably a dangerous thing to write since I’m no David Lodge. Nothing wacky happened (I didn’t shop at the hotel convenience store) and I left for home before the Saturday night dance party started, though I saw a tweet about it on the bus ride from Boston. “Bus ride” hardly sounds like a synonym for “fun times” either but, well, the two-hour trip did not induce jetlag. Then again, there’s something to be said for the nervous energy that comes with a transatlantic plane flight. (Hello, London Book Fair!) In any case, ASEEES was particularly fun because, with thousands of Slavists in attendance I saw colleagues – both in pre-arranged and chance meetings – from all stages of my Russian studies life, from grad school decades ago to my Moscow years and my current incarnation as a translator. There’s something oddly comforting about that: things change, things stay the same, things are enjoyable. As even convention panels sometimes are, too. I’ll start with highlights of Russian literature panels.
  • The first panel I attended was on the legacy of Vladimir Makanin, where I took particular interest in hearing Byron Lindsey, who has translated Makanin (here’s a story), speak about knowing him, Vladimir Ivantsov speak about teaching him, and Irina Anisimova speak about Makanin’s Asan – I share Anisimova’s views of the narrative’s shortcomings and dead-end/failed plotlines. Since I was the only spectator at this panel (I’d heard this often happens at ASEEES), it was nice to join in the conversation after the papers.
  • A panel called “The Poetics of Space in Post-Soviet Fiction,” chaired by Sibelan Forrester, covered some familiar territory, too. I was sorry to miss Sofya Khagi speaking about Pelevin, Bykov, and Ilichevsky, but glad to catch Keith Livers’s paper on Alexander Prokhanov’s The Murder of Cities if only because I seem to recall someone thanking Livers for reading Prokhanov so others don’t have to. I’ve never read Prokhanov but after scribbling “signature motif of dismemberment,” in quotation marks, hmm, perhaps I should be thankful, too. Given my own reading and translation work, Muireann Maguire’s paper on Vladimir Sharov’s Before and During and Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator felt, of course, the most familiar and relevant – I loved hearing her speak about elements of clinical confinement, transitional spaces, and historiography. (I’d go on but don’t want to give away The Aviator’s big spoiler!)
  • I heard more discussion of contemporary fiction in a panel called “Russia’s History as Battlefield: Ideology, Politics, and the Response of Literature,” chaired by Dirk Uffelmann and with discussant Boris Noordenbos, who (according to my marginalia) studies conspiracy theories. Stehn Aztlan Mortensen spoke about Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria, seeing Sorokin as a sort of modern-day Gogol, and Kåre Johan Mjør spoke about contemporary conservative thought, but it was Ingunn Lunde’s discussion of “reimaginations of historical pasts” that particularly hit me because she analyzed many aspects of Mikhail Gigolashvili’s mammoth Mysterious Year, about Ivan the Terrible, covering its structure (one chapter, one day), stylized prose (e.g. mix of high-brow and oral usage), and themes that resonate today, such as Russia and the West, and spiritual and moral values.
  • Saturday got off to a great start with “Great Performances of Glasnost”: Breakthrough Events in Soviet-Western Literary Relations in the 80s and 90s, where I was sorry to miss Ellen Chances’s paper but very much enjoyed Carol Ueland’s on “The Arrival of New Soviet Writers, the PEN Readers of 1987, and Joseph Brodsky”; Nadezhda Azhghikina’s reading of (the absent) Natalia Ivanova’s piece about a 1991 conference of Russian women writers and American Slavists; and then discussant Nancy Condee’s wonderfully freewheeling talk about personal experiences living in Moscow during the Soviet period. There was tons to soak up here, particularly the combination of official delegations and personal experiences, all of which brought back lots of perestroika-era memories of visitors to my university, including Anatoly Rybakov, who spoke at my department at a time when, sadly, I hadn’t a clue who he was.
(I realize I’ve established a disgraceful-sounding pattern of missed papers: this is largely because it was difficult to ride the escalator or walk the corridors of the hotel’s conference area – where some conferees conventioneers pretty much set up remote offices in comfortable-looking chairs – without running into anyone familiar that I hadn’t seen in the last hour or thirty years. This was conference culture at its finest.)
  • And then there were the split sessions, where I heard most of Eliot Borenstein’s “‘No, You’re the Puppet’: Conspiracy and Agency in the Putin Era,” which was part of a panel on conspiracy theories in post-Soviet Russia and which I couldn’t resist for its discussion of the zombification of consumers of mass media, the passive behavior that results, and the dovetailing with conspiracy theory. Of course my notes on the paper may be garbled since I quickly started thinking more about (damn it!) mobile rabies, free will, race baiting, and the masses in Eduard Verkin’s Sakhalin Island (previous post), a book that, yes, ladies and gentlemen, still pokes at my addled brain cells. In any case, I’m already looking forward to Eliot’s Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism, which you can preview here (scroll down for the beginning!). I also highly recommend Eliot’s “Rereading Akunin” blog posts. Along the way to a theater panel, I resisted the call of Stephen F. Cohen’s familiar voice from a roundtable on “What Did the Soviet Dissident Movement Teach the Field: In Honor of Edward Kline and Valery Chalidze” in favor of arriving in time for Aleksei Semenenko’s paper on Othello.
  • The final session I attended, also only in part since I was late-late-late once again, this time thanks to goodbyes, was a roundtable, “Introducing Alternative Perspectives: Women’s Writing in Post-Soviet Russia and Former Socialist Republics,” that included discussion of Nastya Rybka (I think?) and Alisa Ganieva (definitely); chaired by Alisa Rowley, with participants Olga Breininger-Umetayeva, Vasilina Orlova, Aleksandra Simonova, and Susanna Weygandt. I enjoyed hearing their perspectives on feminism, women, and writing, and am very sorry to have missed the beginning.
  • My own paper, in a translation stream session about criticism chaired by Emily Finer, discussed online criticism of Russian-to-English translations. I focused on (and offered examples of) approaches that address elements of a translation without nitpicking about individual word choices but manage to find ways to express, in a balanced way, the reviewer’s preferences for a different approach – these sorts of reviews can be wonderfully tactful, constructive, and useful. My co-panelists were Timothy Sergay, with “Can Rejection of ‘Gotcha’ Criticism Be Reconciled with Interlinguistic Scrutiny?: Notes of a Rueful Reviewer of Translations,” and Hannu Kemppanen, whose paper “The Place of Translation in the Target Culture: Book Reviews as an Institution of Translation” (here’s another version of Hannu’s paper) offered a case study of a work of nonfiction by Yuri Komissarov (Deryabin in real life – the author was a Soviet diplomat) that was translated into Finnish and received fifty (!) reviews. Our discussant didn’t come so I somehow made it through my first academic conference without being discussanted. Maybe I’ll experience that dubious pleasure in 2020 in Washington.
I came home before the last day of the convention – I just couldn’t envision such an early Sunday morning – and wound up my ASEEES stay with a Russo-American Poetry Reading session, where highlights included readings by Polina Barskova, Matvei Yankelevich, and Pavel Arseniev. And then I headed off for the bus, towing a little suitcase half-filled with A History of Russian Literature by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler; and with smaller spaces taken up by Anna Burns’s Milkman, a wonderful colleague’s gift that I loved reading on the treadmill, a little at a time, feeling the rhythms of the skaz narration as I walked; as well as Linor Goralik’s Found Life, a collection of poems, stories, comics, and a play edited by Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokour that I’m planning to read chunks of soon alongside a Russian volume with very similar contents.

Up Next: Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped. And then something else.

Disclaimers: The usual, plus I’ve known Eliot Borenstein since my Moscow years. Thank you to Columbia University Press’s Russian Library – who will be publishing my translation of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog later this year! – for the copy of the Goralik book. Oxford University Press gave me a generous and much-appreciated discount on A History of Russian Literature.


  1. Thank you so much for this post! One - it shames me about all the panels I now feel I shouldn't have missed, but two - happily, thanks to you notes, I still feel informed! I just put in a panel proposal for this year's convention, so this time, hope to see you for longer than ten minutes!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Nina! I'm very glad we were finally able to meet, if only briefly, at the end of the day at ASEEES. I'm afraid I won't be coming to this year's convention (may your proposal be approved!) but next year's will be in DC, so I'm pretty sure I'll come to that one!