Sunday, April 5, 2020

Finding Consolation in Russian Literature

It’s been more than a month since I last wrote and I hope that this post finds you well, wherever you might be. Although I’ve known for weeks that I wanted to write about consolation – it was a thread in a talk that I gave at Bowdoin College in late February, even before Covid-19 had been documented in many states – I found it difficult to try to write when I was still trying to figure out how to adjust to
Cutting your own hair is fun!
this new reality. I’m more than happy to stay at home but the barrage of sad news is beyond unnerving (though I don’t loop and reloop it) and the logistics of day-to-day things like buying food and getting paid have changed a lot. I’m still figuring certain things out but chats with friends and colleagues, caring for cats, translation projects, cooking good meals with unusual combinations of available ingredients, and, of course, reading have all helped me find a new rhythm. There’s far too much bad news in the Big World, but I’m more than comfortable at home, love my work, and have even had some good news about two of my translations, as I mention below.

First off, though: Russian classics! Although I decided not to reread War and Peace this spring (I reread a large chunk of W&P a few years ago so it feels too soon), I’ve been enjoying reading about the book thanks to a virtual book club, led by Yiyun Li and hosted by A Public Space. There are many forms of consolation here, from the cycles of life Tolstoy describes in the book to the very fact that people are reading and discussing the novel online. It’s particularly nice and enlightening – as well as touching – to read so many thoughtful tweets (#tolstoytogether) about the characters and Tolstoy’s writing. I’ve been thinking about (re)reading other classics, perhaps Turgenev, though more likely Chekhov, whom I set aside just as I was getting going on My Life, which I’d intended to read before a university visit in mid-March. As Languagehat wrote in a recent post about Sologub’s The Petty Demon, “good writing is never depressing.” Although I’d been admiring and loving Chekhov’s writing – his ability to combine words feels like a miracle whenever I read him – I was feeling a bit too unfocused for subtlety (and, of course the trip was cancelled) so I switched to a detective novel. I’ll be finishing that tonight, though, and am feeling ready for something more complex again so may opt for restarting My Life. Or perhaps I’ll go for a long Sologub story from one of the collections on my shelf? Who knows what will strike me!

And then there’s contemporary Russian fiction, where I seem to gravitate toward translating books that somehow (if only toward the end) end up consoling and soothing. Vodolazkin’s Laurus (previous post), one of my all-time favorite books, certainly does all that, with its variation on the “life of a saint” genre, tracking a life that includes plague, doctoring, holyfooling, and, eventually, of course, death. And then there’s Vodolazkin’s The Aviator (previous post), where the main character focuses a lot on small details that help define a life and time; a brief passage on gargling particularly struck me. (Why do I find it so reassuring to think about the fact that people will always gargle?!)

Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha (previous post), where the title character’s life changes after she’s exiled to Siberia for being a kulak, also reassures. Living in a distant place with a harsh climate is anything but easy but (no spoilers here!) Zuleikha discovers a lot about herself. My first bit of good news is that Guzel, Zuleikha, and I were recently named finalists for the EBRD Literary Prize. I’m excited about being a finalist but also hope that the book will gain some new readers thanks to recognition through the prize: there’s certainly a strong element of isolation in the novel that might feel all the more relevant now. And then there’s my most recent translation, Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky (previous post), which Asymptote named as a book club selection a few days ago. Asymptote’s announcement includes Josefina Massot’s wonderful review, which explains (far better than I could) why Three Applies is such perfect reading for this time and this strange form of isolation/quarantine so many of us now find ourselves in. I’ve been thinking back to a lot of favorite books (particularly War and Peace) during recent weeks but my translations become a part of me, internalized, during the many months I spend with them, making me all the more grateful to my authors for writing such beautifully soothing novels.

Here’s wishing everybody good health!

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.

Up next: Alexei Polyarinov’s Center of Gravity, which is soothing in its own way, too.


  1. Good health to you and stay safe. Books are always a consolation - and especially Russian ones! :D

    1. Thank you, k! Books are a consolation and it's in times like these that I'm especially grateful that I have so many in the house to choose from. There's something for every mood! May you stay well and safe, too.