Sunday, April 28, 2019

Big Book Goes Big With Its 2019 Long Longlist

Last week the Big Book Award announced a longlist consisting of forty one titles. The Big Book’s shortlist – of somewhere between eight and fifteen titles – will be named on June 5. Given the sheer volume of volumes on this year’s (long)list, I’ll name about a third of those selected, including the books I’ve read, a couple overlaps with the National Bestseller shortlist, and several completely unfamiliar books that sound like they might be interesting.

The books I’ve already read:
  • Eduard Verkin’s Остров Сахалин (Sakhalin Island) (previous post) still bugs me for being such an absorbing and unforgettable but rather messy postapocalyptic novel that channels Chekhov.
  • Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Брисбен (Brisbane) tells the story of a virtuoso guitar player who discovers he has an incurable medical condition.
  • Anna Nemzer’s Раунд (Round) (previous post) is a polyphonic novel about love, identity, history, and everything else.
  • Alexei Salnikov’s Опосредованно (Indirectly perhaps? This is what a colleague and I think might fit…), which I’ll finish today, is about a woman living in the Urals who writes poetry in a world that’s almost like ours, though poems have drug-like effects.
  • Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post) is the first-cat narrative I so enjoyed last year.
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Калечина-Малечина (Kalechina-Malechina) is waiting for a second chance. I read half of K-M and am now feeling strong pangs that demand I return, particularly after just finishing Nekrasova’s novella Несчастливая Москва (Unhappy Moscow). I already appreciated her use of language and now I’m starting to get into her (abundantly peculiar and rather frightening) universe, too, so feeling ready for the second half of K-M. (I’m also finally going to read Platonov’s Happy Moscow. I’m so long due to read more Platonov, but even his short works are always a big itch to try to scratch.)
The two books that overlap with the National Bestseller list (previous post) are Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina and Andrei Rubanov’s Финист - ясный сокол (Finist, the Brave Falcon).

A few books and authors completely unfamiliar to me, listed in alphabetical order by author:
  • Olgerd Bakharevich, author of Собаки Европы (The Dogs of Europe), says this gigundo (nine-hundred-page) book is about everything, with Belarus, Europe, the world, and Minsk being some of that “everything.” He translated the book himself, rewriting it in the process.
  • Fyodor Grot’s Ромовая баба (Rum Baba) warrants a mention for the simple fact that the beginning mentions plague.
  • Anna Klepikova’s Наверно я дурак (literally something like I’m Probably a Fool) describes itself as an anthropological novel (it appears to be autofiction) and sounds like it’s about a volunteer at a home for children with (apparently) psychiatric issues. (An excerpt)
Finally, there are two manuscripts. Manuscripts always have an air of mystery (and, honestly, irritation as well) since no author’s name or publisher is mentioned. But at least these titles are simple! Number 141 is Вавилонская лестница (The Staircase of Babel) and number 158 is Рюрик (Rurik).

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Many of the books mentioned in this post were given to me; I know some of the authors listed and have translated three books by one. I’m a member of the Big Book’s jury, known as the Literary Academy.

Up Next: A Salnikov post covering The Department and what I’ll provisionally continue to call Indirectly. And then probably Nekrasova.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The 2019 National Bestseller Award Shortlist

The NatsBest Award announced six finalists last week. I’ve listed the books below, with the first (“big”) jury’s point totals. I haven’t read any of the books in full (yet) and know little about them beyond bits I’ve read in reviews and descriptions, so more caveat emptor (as it were) than usual on my summaries (and titles, too). I also confess that I’ve looked the least into the last two books: they interest me most and, selfishly, I don’t want to know too much before reading. The winner – who is supposed to wake up famous – will be announced on May 25.

Film critic Mikhail Trofimenkov’s XX век представляет. Кадры и кадавры (The 20th Century Presents. Cadres and Cadavers is the title that sounds best, translating “кадры” as “cadres” but given the film topic, well, I suspect there’s at least a double meaning of “frames” or “shots,” plus “кадавр” apparently has an additional meaning of some sort of living dead in Russian, a topic seeming to warrant further study and reading!) is a sociopolitical/sociocultural book about film in many countries during the second half of the twentieth century. (14 points)

Andrei Rubanov’s Финист - ясный сокол (Finist, the Brave Falcon; at least for now I’ll borrow the title from a Soviet film) sounds like a blend of ancient Russia, folktale motifs, and fantasy. Here’s a version of the story of Finist. (a lucky 13 points)

I’m so unschooled about manga and anime that I didn’t recognize the “otaku” in Upyr Likhoi’s title Славянские отаку (Slavic otaku). I was curious about the author’s name, too, a pseudonym borrowed from an eleventh-century Russian scribe and priest, though simply looking at the words, the name sounds like Vampire/Ghoul + Evil/Spirited; I kind of like the “Wicked Vampire” option mentioned on Wikipedia’s Öpir page. In any case, it’s a great pseudonym with a fair bit of history. In any case (again), it sounds like the book is an allegory (satirical, too?) of the political conflict between Russia and Ukraine told through two guys who spend a lot of time online. (7 points)

The only book I’ve read any of (about half) is Evgenia Nekrasova’s Калечина-малечина (Kalechina-Malechina): this novel about a girl who is bullied and often left to her own devices struck me most for Nekrasova’s imaginative use of language and vivid settings and situations. I admired those aspects of the book enough that this one has been bothering me, asking, even begging, for another chance at finishing. (7 points)

Alexander Etoev’s Я буду всегда с тобой (I’ll Always Be With You) is set in 1943, in Russia’s Far North. (6 points)

Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four or perhaps even something like Four of Them) sounds tempting, blending elements of science fiction and detective novels, plus three very distinct temporal settings that somehow connect. (6 points)

Up Next: Alexei Salnikov’s wonderfully twisted The Department.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, plus I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

London Book Fair 2019 Trip Report, the No-Notes-Means-Minimal-Substance Edition

That’s right: I took no notes at any of the events I attended or participated in during the week of the London Book Fair. I slacked. I’ve pieced together a bit, though, based on memory…

I suppose I have a bit of an excuse for shirking during the first event I attended, since it took place roughly twelve hours after landing at Gatwick and roughly thirty hours after my last real (lying in a bed) sleep. The event was a book club meeting with Alexei Salnikov, who discussed his Отдел (The Department) at the Waterstones/Piccadilly store. In some ways, jetlag was the ideal state for me to be in since I hadn’t yet read the book and didn’t want spoilers; thanks to jetlag, there was no need to tune anything out! Now that I’ve read the book, I think that attending without really processing the conversation was perfect. Among other things, I probably would have disbelieved what people said about The Department. And attending without really listening/retaining fits beautifully with the novel’s absurdity. As did the intensity and urgency of the conversation, which I (think I) do remember. I’ll be writing about the book soon and will only add for now that the book was deeply unsettling in all the right ways. So I loved it.

Thank goodness for real sleep: Day Two included two events! A translation roundtable at the Russian stand brought together eight translators, moderated by Hamid Ismailov, whose The Devils’ Dance, translated by Donald Rayfield with John Farndon, recently won the EBRD Literature Prize.
Photo: Anastasia Kornienko
Here we are, left to right: Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler, me (I was cold, not critical!), Oliver Ready, Hamid Ismailov, Alexander Chantsev, Arch Tait, Ola Wallin, and Carol Ermakova. I remember a few things: mentioning my translation of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog for the Russian Library and saying that I look for books that I enjoyed reading and think I will enjoy translating – I see having fun as a critical part of the process. Also: Donald Rayfield learned Uzbek to translate The Devils’ Dance and Carol Ermakova spoke of her translations of Elena Chizhova’s novels. Other details are too murky to mention since I don’t want to get anything wrong or, heaven forbid, start rumors. Day Two also brought me back to Waterstones: Guzel Yakhina spoke, primarily about her Zuleikha, which recently came out in my translation for Oneworld Publications. I talked for a short bit about the translation, addressing (Ура, I remember this part!) how we handled the Tatar words in the Russian text: transliterating and italicizing those that the text already explained, but just translating the rest. This was a lucky case where the Russian text held the perfect solution.

The evening of Day Three took me to Pushkin House for a screening of the first episode of the series Хребет России (The Ridge of Russia), about the Urals, followed by Q&A with author Alexei Ivanov and moderator Anastasia Koro. Thank goodness there’s information here, on the Pushkin House site, about the event and how everything (and everybody) fits together! Tales of Yermak were particularly memorable, though the linguist in me was most fascinated that Ivanov and TV guy Leonid Parfyonov, who’s also part of this road-trip-esque series, stressed different syllables in the plural of the word for Cossack. This struck me because a friend has noted a couple of times that she prefers the stress as казáки; I’d been stressing endings. (There’s lots on the Internet about this stressful topic, here, for example. Fear not: basically, either way is fine. Ozhegov and my two orthographical dictionaries also show stress patterns both ways for the plural, with the root endings as second choice.) Bonus: Yulia Zaitseva, who’s also in the series (she even hang glides!), was in attendance at Pushkin House, too.

Day Four was especially eventful for a roundtable I participated in with Guzel Yakhina, literary agent Julia Goumen, and Glagoslav editor Ksenia Papazova: “Women in Literature & Translation: Realities and Stereotypes,” moderated by Daniel Hahn. There were so many subtopics that it’s very hard to summarize, let alone offer much context, but things began with a brief talk from Guzel during which, among other things, she talked about Zuleikha and said she’d never felt she’d been discriminated against for being a woman. We ended with audience questions, including one from a man who’s interested in translating a woman author. (I hope his project works out!) Other topics included book covers, author age, and specific writers, including Valentina Nazarova, Elena Chizhova, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I talked about the role translators, particularly women, can/should take in working toward ensuring more women’s books are translated and published, noting that since more women writers tend to be translated by women than men (during Q&A, though, I made sure to give men their due and specifically mentioned Arch Tait, whose authors I didn’t list; they include Ulitskaya and Alexievich, among others) we need to actively read, scout, and properly pitch projects if we want to close the gap. (For some stark statistics on how few translated books are written by women, please see this interview with Chad Post from the London Show Daily for 14 March 2019.) I seem to recall repeating that plenty of Russian women are writing high-quality books that deserve to be translated, adding “It’s only fair!” several times. Post-LBF, my biggest hope is that more (“all” is probably asking too much!) translators, agents, scouts, publishers, and others in the industry – men or women – will think more about these disparities when they read, research, and consider projects. Our choices and decisions matter. My reward for finishing my events
Mushy peas, no thanks. Photo: Ilona Chavasse



during the trip was a hot lunch – an old favorite, fish and chips! – with translator colleague and friend Ilona Chavasse (translator of, among others, Yuri Rytkheu – their A Dream in Polar Fog awaits me…), who stealthily immortalized my meal when I stepped away from the table for a minute. The perfect capper to the book fair was Chris Gribble’s half-hour “in conversation” Q&A with Jeremy Tiang, LBF’s first-ever Literary Translator of the Fair. And an excellent choice he was: he’s a thoughtful speaker and I particularly appreciate the wisdom, gentle humor, and love with which he speaks about the realities of literary translation. In an interview with Michelle Johnson of World Literature Today, he said something that I think particularly deserves to be read, remembered, and repeated, repeated, repeated: “Literary translators are artists in our own right. Treat us as partners in a creative process, not functionaries. We have a lot to offer.”

And that’s about it for public events! I did bring home piles of books, most in English… I’m currently enjoying Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk in Sora Kim-Russell’s translation (after loving Hye-young Pyun’s The Hole in Kim-Russell’s translation, this one called out to me, then turned up on the international Booker longlist later in the week!) and have plenty more on the shelves, including Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation, and Frank Wynne’s translation of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 2, which I just had to buy after reading VS 1 last year, thanks to the good people of Despentes’s UK publisher, MacLehose Press, who gave me a copy at the Frankfurt book fair. VS 1 is apparently on the way to the US in late 2019, from FSG.

Disclaimers, Disclosures, and Thanks: The usual. Thank you to Read Russia for bringing me to the London Book Fair and giving me books, too!

Up Next: Salnikov’s The Department, which may take a bit of time to process and come to terms with, thanks to a powerful combination of absurdity, unease, tension, and even coziness. The NatsBest shortlist. And then another book. It’s hard to know what to read after The Department.