Sunday, June 30, 2019

Space Oddities: Alexander (“My Favorite Pelevin”) Pelevin’s The Four

Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four), a finalist for this year’s National Bestseller Award, is something of a wonder. Before I get into the why, I’ll say that I knew next to nothing about the book before reading it and am glad I picked it up with so few preconceived notions. I won’t include big plot spoilers in this post, but I will mention a few of the motifs that I picked up in my one reading. (I realized as I read through my post that I didn’t even get around to one of the big ones. Consolation: that means I won’t spoil it!) Those motifs only partially decoded the novel for me, but even so, I’m glad I didn’t know about them before reading. You have been warned!

So, what makes The Four a wonder? Pelevin writes three story lines from what I consider three distinct genres – futuristic science fiction, retro noirish detective story, and modern-day psychiatric drama – to compose a novel where one of the key glues (and clues) is Гость на коне (“Guest on a Horse”), a poem by Alexander Vvedensky. (Four horsemen of the apocalypse, coincidence or not?) The sea is another form of glue, and this sea is often very elemental, even a sort of primeval goo from ages ago, a living being unto itself. I will say no more.

The first chapter opens in 2154, on a space ship hurtling to the planet Proxima Centaur b, located in a solar system that is (of course!) far, far away from ours. Four astronauts have just come out of eighty-seven years of stasis and it’s time to prepare for landing and research on Proxima Centaur b. The spaceship’s operating system, Aurora, is essentially a super-advanced Siri or Alexa: she’s friendly, seems to know everything, and knows Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in many languages; she’ll recite some Gumilev poetry, too. Shortly after the ship’s commander, Lazarev, refuses Aurora’s generous offer to sing “Space Oddity” in English, Pelevin whisks the reader back to 1938, to Crimea, where a certain Vvedensky ((!) I wrote “such a marked name!” in the margin), a Leningrader, has arrived to investigate a murder; strange scenes and grisly situations, including murder victims with metal stars on them, will follow. I particularly liked an unusually worldly character named Kramer, who has lived overseas, shows a scholarly bent, and feeds both Vvedensky and many feral cats. When we’re zapped forward to 2017, a psychiatrist, Khromov, is working with a patient who claims to communicate with a woman from another planet. (Three guesses where it is…) Khromov has his own issues and would love to just spend some quiet time at New Year’s with his wife and daughter, who seem close to perfect.

Twin Peaks was apparently an inspiration for Pelevin and the Twin Peaks connection does fit with certain aspects of the novel: NatsBest jury reviewer Vasily Avchenko notes, for example, the things-aren’t-always-as-the-seem element. As a long-time fan of Twin Peaks who enjoyed The Four, speaking in the broadest terms, it’s safe to say both endeared themselves to me through their oddness, twisted hominess, smartness, and otherworldliness. They’re stylish and easy to take in but filled with layers of meaning and enigmas that take multiple viewings/readings to sort. Of course that’s fun. And of course I’m missing a zillion references, not just from Twin Peaks. There’s lots from 2001 (I’ve never seen it, though I grilled my husband about HAL) and even, apparently, Aelita, which I read in my pre-blog life (there was such a time!) but don’t remember well.

Thinking back to the atmosphere(s) in The Four got me pondering (yet again) (sub)genres like speculative fiction, slipstream fiction, and new weird, largely because they tend to bend. This brought back Dmitry Olshansky’s NatsBest review, which I’ll summarize as calling The Four interesting but unsuccessful; he reads it as a B-movie sort of thriller with some artsy moments thanks to the Vvedensky and Gumilev bits. I would argue (for starters) that Pelevin’s ability to lift his wonderfully pulpy-sounding material by working the poetry – plus references to classic science fiction books and films – into not one but three plotlines goes well beyond the demands of a b thriller. Even better, Pelevin does all that without making me feel manipulated. To the contrary: I found The Four pretty stimulating and am still flipping through it to pick up on humor, ruminate on genre questions, and track motif mentions and starts of idea threads that I missed because I was so caught up in the plots. And then Pelevin’s play with time – the stasis years are an existential time warp unto themselves, plus the three plots link up – reminded me of, among others, Vodolazkin, who also mentions a plethora of cats in Crimea. (Cats!) Finally, I have to agree with another NatsBest reviewer, Natasha Romanova, that The Four’s Crimean detective track recalls Lev Ovalov’s Major Pronin novels, which I enjoyed three of in my pre-blog life.

I’ll close by saying that a kind friend with a big suitcase brought me another Pelevin novel that I’ll read soon. My recent contemplation of how I read has shown me that I’m more oriented on authors’ worldviews than ever before – books and stories by Alexei Salnikov and Evgenia Nekrasova, which are also about weird places and hidden aspects of the universe(s), are exhibits A and B – so I’m planning to read that (and perhaps Pelevin’s debut novel, too) before returning to The Four. Beyond wanting to decipher more of the novel as a whole, I want very much to be in that spaceship again with Lazarev, so far from home and trying not to think about Earth. (Ah, floaty existential moments!) Perhaps that’s why he balks when Aurora goes haywire for a bit and recites “Guest on a Horse,” a poem whose last sentence, in Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation for New York Review Books, is “I forgot about existence,/ I again/ contemplated/ the distance.”

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Huge thanks to the very kind colleague who brought me a copy of Четверо. (He brought me another NatsBest finalist, too, Alexander Etoev’s Я буду всегда с тобой (I’ll Always Be With You), though I’ve set that one aside, at least for now, after seventy-five pages. It just couldn’t hold my attention after The Four.) Thank you to New York Review Books for sending me, several years ago, a copy of An Invitation for Me to Think, a selection of poems by Alexander Vvedensky translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich. Ostashevsky’s introduction has been useful since the Vvedensky is clearly a key to The Four. Vvedensky and his бессмыслица (Ostashevsky suggests meaningless, absurdity, and nonsense as translations), which I know so painfully little about, are sucking me in. 

Up Next: Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina and stories about more weird worlds.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Lizok’s Summer Reading Plan: 2019 Big Book Finalists

The Big Book Award named twelve finalists last week and I breathed a big old sigh of relief because this year’s short list looks so much better – infinitely better – to me than last year’s*. I’ve already read several of the books, all of which were very good in their own ways; a few others are already calling out to me. The list is an interesting combination of familiar and not-so-familiar authors, though there only two – Gonorovsky and Bakharevich – were completely unfamiliar to me before the Big Book Long List. Perhaps most interesting: unless I’ve really missed the point here about something, there’s only one work of nonfiction this year, a biography of Venedikt Erofeev, which pretty much had to make the finals.

  • Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Рай земной (Earthly Paradise? Heaven on Earth?) looks back at political repression during the Stalin era, apparently layering fantasy and history. (If, that is, the book’s description is to be believed!) I’m very much looking forward to this one after Aflatuni’s The Ant King.
  • Olgerd Bakharevich says his Собаки Европы (The Dogs of Europe), a 768-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.
  • Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Брисбен (Brisbane) tells the story of a virtuoso guitar player who discovers he has an incurable medical condition.
  • Aleksandr Gonorovsky’s Собачий лес (Dog Forest, though I’m suspecting layers of meaning here…) apparently combines a lot of genres and addresses topics including historical trauma.
  • Linor Goralik’s 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.
  • The trio of Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky hit the list for the biography Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The Outsider). Oliver Ready’s review for The TLS notes this, which makes me look forward to the book very much: “In fact, this is not one biography but two, for between each chapter comes an interlude devoted to Moskva- Petushki.”
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Калечина-Малечина (Kalechina-Malechina) is vivid, imaginative, and edgy in its description of a schoolgirl who is bullied and often left to her own devices.
  • Alexei Salnikov’s Опосредованно (Indirectly perhaps? This is what a colleague and I think might fit…) 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. I enjoyed Indirectly very much but reading it electronically wasn’t enough so I’m going to reread it as a printed book.
  • Roman Senchin’s Дождь в Париже (Rain in Paris) is about a Russian man who’s in Paris reflecting on his life in Russia.
  • Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post) is the first-cat narrative I so enjoyed last year.
  • Vyacheslav Stavetsky’s Жизнь А.Г. (The Life of A.G.) concerns a Spanish dictator.
  • Guzel Yakhina’s Дети мои (Children of the Volga) blends history and fairy tale motifs in a novel about a Volga German man and his daughter.
*With one exception: I’m sorry (yet again!) to see how few books written by women hit the short list. Since I don’t know what books were nominated, it’s impossible to say what the starting material was for the first two rounds of selection but, looking at the long list, I can say that I already read Anna Nemzer’s The Round (previous post) and thought it was pretty good, couldn’t quite get into Ksenia Buksha’s Opens In though it seemed well-written and solidly structured, and still have several other longlisters written by women either on the shelf to read or on order from a generous friend willing to travel with lots of book baggage. I am looking forward to reading those books and the other finalists! [Added on 6/11/2019.]

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’m a member of the Literary Academy, the large jury for the Big Book Award. I’ve translated works by three authors on the list, know a couple more, and have received copies of some of the books from various parties.

Up Next: Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, plus some of her shorter work. And then Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four, perhaps, though I’m still not sure), which I’m enjoying for its blend of three plotlines: futuristic space travel, a 1930s detective story set in Crimea, and a present-day description of a patient at a St. Petersburg psychiatric hospital who claims to have contact with someone from another planet. It’s lively and entertaining.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The 2019 NatsBest Goes to Rubanov, Old News Edition

Andrei Rubanov won the 2019 National Bestseller Award for his Финист - ясный сокол (Finist, the Brave Falcon; I’ll keep borrowing the title from a Soviet film for now), a novel with motifs from folktales. Honorary jury chair Yury Voronin broke a tie between Finist and Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, each of which had two votes. Voronin said he would have gone for Mikhail Trofimenkov’s XX век представляет. Кадры и кадавры (The 20th Century Presents. Cadres and Cadavers) if that had been an option, but Cadres and Cadavers had just one other vote. The only other book to win a point in the final round was Alexander Etoev’s Я буду всегда с тобой (I’ll Always Be With You), which I’m looking forward to reading soon, thanks to a very kind colleague.

Rubanov’s win wasn’t particularly surprising given that Finist racked up thirteen points from the award’s “big jury,” second only to Trofimenkov’s fourteen. I was pleased to see Kalechina-Malechina, which I’ll be writing about soon, come in second after finding a lot to admire in Nekrasova’s colorfully written story about a young girl.

I saw the news about the NatsBest when I was sitting at the airport waiting to fly home after spending a day in New York for Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week… I clicked through to read the beginning of Finist, which, of course, feels very different from any Rubanov I’ve read since it’s set in the distant past rather than either a dystopian future Moscow (Chlorophyllia is still my favorite Rubanov book, previous post) or a very right-here-right-now Moscow, as in The Patriot, which won the Yasnaya Polyana Award in 2017. In any case, I’m interested in giving Finist a try in print – or maybe again on the reader without the distraction of gate changes and crowds of humanity walking past.

I had a very fun time in New York, traveling for a Read Russia discussion with Olga Slavnikova, Guzel Yakhina, and Ian Dreiblatt. Olga’s The Man Who Couldn’tDie and Guzel’s Zuleikha both came out in English translation (Marian Schwartz’s and mine, respectively) this year, and Ian is a wonderful translator, poet, and reader-observer, so there was plenty of “in conversation” to go around. Other than sleeping and riding the subway (never simultaneously), I spent my other hours in New York drinking coffee, wandering Central Park, and meeting and eating with my fellow panelists, other translators, other Read Russians, and the very good people of Columbia University Press/Russian Library who will release my translation of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog into the world in August. They’ve done a great job with the book and I’m very excited for it to come out.

Up Next: More award news! Big Book finalists will be announced this week. Then Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina and other tales. All bets are off for what comes after that.

Disclaimers: The usual, including that I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina.