Sunday, March 1, 2020

Three Hybrid Books: Barnes, Croft, and Zilberbourg

Well. This is a post I’ve been dreading for all too long, about three books I read in English. The dread comes from the fact of enjoying and admiring each so much for its creative blend of fact, fiction, and technique, plus readability, stylistics, and, hm, information imparted. I’d recommend each to nearly any reader, which may be the reason I find this trio so difficult to write about.

Taking the books alphabetically by author surname, I’ll start with Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time (Knopf), which I bought shortly after it came out but didn’t read until this winter. The Noise of Time is a biographical novel about Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer I knew all too little about, both musically and historically. Although Barnes loads the novel with details from Shostakovich’s life and career – official disapproval of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on Nikolai Leskov’s story, is a key event – I can’t say I’m much more knowledgeable about him now. That, however, is Barnes’s greatest success for this reader. He weaves his facts into a novel that creates a painful and (almost or completely, I can’t decide which) claustrophobic portrait of a man – Shostakovich – living under a totalitarian regime. I’ve read lots of fiction and nonfiction about the Stalin era, so much of Barnes’s material is familiar, though much remains unexplored, given that the topic is so large and important. He shows how political power uses its citizens – including musicians – so the “total” in “totalitarian” is firmly felt when absolute control is exerted over careers, lives, and private thinking. The Noise of Time reminds me in some ways of Lidia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna, which I’ve read several times, most recently in 2011 (here). Both these novels would be perfect reading for courses on the Soviet system and/or totalitarian regimes. Bonus in The Noise of Time: Barnes includes mentions of the song “The Chrysanthemums in the Garden Have Long Since Faded,” which also comes up in Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator and plays in the film adaptation of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch; it may need its own tag one of these days.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick, from Unnamed Press, is described on the copyright page of my advance reading copy as “a work of creative nonfiction,” where “names, identifying details, and places have been changed.” Its title page calls it a memoir; the combination works well. Writing in the third person, Jennifer describes the young lives of two very close sisters: Amy is a wunderkind and Zoe has a puzzling illness. The story of Amy’s love for and devotion to Zoe would have been beautiful on its own but Jennifer’s use of her own photographs (often with captions about words and language) as well as chapter titles like “Even though she knows she’s not supposed to, Amy looks forward to tornados” (we’re in Oklahoma, after all) give the book a snappiness that is paradoxically matter-of-fact. The first chapter, with its childhood Cheerios and mentions of catastrophes like AIDS, tornadoes, earthquakes, and the Holocaust, presages intersections of innocence and doom. Jennifer’s seemingly simple descriptions of Amy and Zoe’s lives find the perfect tone for capturing private youthful emotion and love as well as the world’s very public and very adult threats. That would have been plenty to suck me in but Amy is drawn to words and eventually to translation, making Homesick feel all the closer. To top that off, there’s a thick Russian layer in the book. Amy and Zoe learn Russian from a tutor named Sasha. They focus their attention on Soviet skaters during the Lillehammer Winter Olympics (their story is scarily like my obsession with Soviet gymnasts in Munich in 1972!). And Amy takes a course in Russian poetry with Yevgeny Yevtushenko. (Homesick even includes two Yevtushenko poems.) Although I’d recommend Homesick to any reader as a personal and vivid story about childhood, sisterhood, growing up, and the tolls of illness, I think it will particularly resonate with readers interested in writing, translation, and the power of words. And even more for those who, like me, came of age during the Soviet Union’s final decades. I know Jennifer through translation, which made Homesick feel all the more personal, beautiful, and meaningful. For more: Emily Rapp Black’s review, for the New York Times Sunday review section.

I met Olga Zilberbourg, the author of Like Water and Other Stories, (WTAW Press) through translation, too. Her Like Water is a slender volume containing stories of varying lengths, from one very funny short sentence to a few pages (this is most common) to thirteen pages long. As with any collection, I found some stories more compelling and intriguing than others, but the stories in Like Water flow together harmoniously, fulfilling Olga’s artist statement that says the stories “invite the reader to consider the way becoming a parent turns one’s lived experience into a battleground for potential identities.” Her later mention of “bicultural identity” is one of the big draws in Like Water because it crosses into her writing, too, with expressions, words, and items I associate with Russia(n) and don’t often run into in English, things like “parklets” and the comment “it’s not a conversation to have over the telephone” (“нетелефонный разговор,” something I’ve updated to email). There are also mentions of buckwheat groats (my beloved breakfast гречка) and “Anatoly Kashpirovsky, a television hypnotist whose healing séances came to be broadcast on Channel One…” That list might not sound at all earthshattering but Olga’s writing is a wonderful example of how vocabulary and experiences broaden when two cultures and languages coexist in one person’s brain. And she can even write unusual stories like “Computational Creativity,” in which a computer (your computer) goes to night school “while you sleep.” And then there’s “Sweet Porridge,” which invokes the Brothers Grimm in the first paragraph and includes fairytale motifs and cultural differences. Like Water brings many surprises.

I appreciate all that, though what I appreciate most is her ability to radically change the reader’s view of a story in its very last paragraph, as in “My Mother at the Shooting Range,” which begins with the narrator offering details about her mother’s Leningrad childhood, just after the Great Patriotic War. There’s a “remodeled air-raid shelter” in her apartment building’s basement – it’s used for shooting practice. “At the top of the back wall, painted sky blue, the metallic gray ducks with yellow noses are flying.” Some actual practice follows, then the narrator’s mother, as a little girl, helps the practicers gather pellets off the floor. And then, well, everything changes at the very end, in a way I won’t and can’t describe because it would ruin everything. But I found it so poignant and so unexpected that all I could scribble at the end was “Why, how does this work?!” This sort of inexplicable success, often in stories that initially feel unremarkable, is one of my favorite sensations when reading. (I have a special affection for fiction that initially feels unremarkable but then finds something tranformingly transcendent.) Most of all, I don’t want to know how Olga does this. One thing I do know, though, is that she has lots of inexplicable successes in Like Water, both at capturing cultural and linguistic differences, and at capturing idiosyncrasies in ways that, taken together, not only broaden language but broaden our views of humanity.

Rather than attempt to describe more about Olga’s stories – given their nuance, that’s an exercise as futile as trying to explain why a joke is funny – I’m going to paste in links to a couple from the collection that are available online so you can read them for yourself.
“Therapy. Or Something” on (I particularly loved this one!)

You might also be interested in reading Punctured Lines, a blog that Olga and Yelena Furman founded in 2019 to look at “post-Soviet literature in and outside the Former Soviet Union.”

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. As noted above, I know both Jennifer Croft (as well as, ever so slightly, her editor) and Olga Zilberbourg, both of whom sent me copies of their books.

Up next: Alexei Polyarinov’s Center of Gravity, which I’m still enjoying very much, perhaps because Polyarinov is also a master of making the unremarkable into something remarkable. Perhaps some Chekhov.