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.