Friday, November 27, 2020

The Wonderfully Bearable Lightness of Kuznetsova’s Intervals

Inga Kuznetsova’s Промежуток Intervals is how Muireann Maguire titles her as-yet-unpublished translation of the novel – was, in many ways, my perfect pandemic-era reading. Intervals is serious but funny, interesting and creative but not especially taxing, and weird but not quite unbelievable. It’s also surprisingly simple, perhaps even simplistic. And light, perhaps even lite, to the extent that now, looking back, I kind of wonder if I missed something. (The very full plot summary on literary agent Thomas Wiedling’s site, here, however, confirms that, no, I probably did not.)

Intervals possesses a fairly solid plot line – we have a future Moscow where poetry (but not prose) is forbidden, protests take place, truncheons have been replaced by double-edged swords, a Nobel-winning poet is arrested, people flee, and eventual catharsis takes place – but Kuznetsova goes heavy on literary devices and light on character development, so I have little memory of individual human characters but plenty of impressions of, hm, odder and more sensory things. Like chapters told from the perspective of birds, bread, and the bars of a prison window. At one point, curtains watch sex, turning the tables on peeping toms. My marginalia includes lots of exclamation marks and “ha has” plus notes like “so weird you wonder if you understood correctly.”

Given that Intervals involves poets and Kuznetsova is, herself, a poet as well as a novelist, there’s also ample discussion of language because (paraphrasing) one character, a poet named Inga (meta alert!), wonders if she’s taken ill because words can separate from the things they’re associated with, to travel on their own. Just as people can be separated from their loves and lives. Inga also fears falling into gaps between words and things. Hm, particularly given her fate.

Somewhere, I saw Intervals described as “naïve.” I agree that it is, though if I think about the almost physical effect the book had on me, I might choose the word “childlike” to convey a child’s imagination and sense of awe when faced with animals and objects. What if they really can think? What if they really are watching us? (Our cats certainly are, usually judging…) In the end, I suppose I read Intervals as simultaneously heavy, light, and lite since it begins with dark, dystopian situations and concludes with, essentially, just plain utopian love. Yes, that feels all too easy (even EZ?), too facile. Then again, perhaps that’s the point? I’m not sure that matters much to me, though, since Intervals was, in many senses, ideal reading during the pandemic: it’s smart, it’s weird (that word again) but simultaneously very familiar, it’s not set in (quite) our reality, it’s lovely to read, and it’s optimistic. Despite my lingering sense of “Is that all there is?” Intervals left me with utterly pervasive memories of laughing out loud, finding joy in wordplay, and, yes, that childlike awe. I’m glad those elements of the book are what dominate my memories, resurging whenever I start to question. I needed them and they’re a lot, practically a regal gift, during 2020. As an example: Did I love the carrier pigeon who mentions Proust? Of course I did.

Up Next: We’ll see!

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual for knowing/having met Inga Kuznetsova, Muireann Maguire, and Thomas Wiedling.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

NOS(E) Award Shortlists – 2020-2021

As if last week’s U.S. elections weren’t enough, there’s literary excitement to report: shortlists for the 2020-2021 NOS(E) Award! The best benefit of my full NOS(E) longlist posts (this year’s is here) is that (even on a tired day) they’re ready to be repurposed into shortlist posts with just a bit of cut/paste. So here I go now. Right after noting that the winners will be announced in early 2021.

First, the jury’s shortlist, ten books:

  • Shamshad Abdullaev: Другой юг (The Other South). This is Abdullaev’s first book of prose – apparently all of it – and the publisher promises (among other things that I’ll summarize and paraphrase from the description) a hypnotic Central Asian landscape and nonlinear techniques reminiscent of Proust and Beckett. (Do click through on Abdullaev’s name for more on his life and poetry, some of which has been translated.)  
  • Polina Barskova: Седьмая щелочь: тексты и судьбы блокадных поэтов (The Seventh Alkali [which is a sort of cleansing wave/wash]: The Texts and Fates of Blockade Poets). This book covers work by Gennady Gor, Pavel Zaltsman, Natalya Krandievskaya, Tatyana Gnedich, Nikolai Tikhonov, Sergei Rudakov, and Zinaida Shishova. The mysterious title (explained here, in Igor Gulin’s review for Kommersant) comes from a poem by Krandievsksya.
  • Maria Buras: Истина существует. Жизнь Андрея Зализняка в рассказах ее участников (Truth Exists. Andrei Zaliznyaka’s Life As Told By Those Involved or somesuch). Zaliznyak, who died in 2017, was a linguist who studied very old literature and documents, including those written on birchbark (!!! This makes me want to learn more!). Buras was his student and friend.
  • Andrei Gogolev: Свидетельство (Evidence, perhaps?). Hm, this one is especially mysterious.
  • Alla Gorbunova: Конец света, моя любовь (It’s the End of the World, My Love). Short stories set in the 1990s and 2000s.
  • Ragim Dzhafarov: Сато (Sato). Apparently the story of a child who thinks he’s being held hostage and is brought to a psychologist.
  • Aleksei Dyachkov: Хани, БАМ (Khani, BAM). Stories set during work on the Baikal-Amur Mainline
  • Evgenia Nekrasova: Сестромам (Sistermom, see the comments, below, for Languagehat’s note on the book’s subtitle) (title story). Short stories, of which I have read (and very much appreciated) several.
  • Vitaly Terletsky (with artist Katya): Собакистан (Dogistan, perhaps, though that’s awfully close to Dagestan…). Comics. Dystopia. Dogs. Colta has a big interview with Terletsky and Katya here, about two of their books.
  • Mikita Franko: Дни нашей жизни (Days of Our Life). A novel about a boy whose life seems typical. But has lots of secrets. The description and even the reader reviews/comments on seem very concerned about spoilage so I didn’t read much about it… though whilst googling around, I found that articles on Days of Our Life often mention LGBT families right up front, including in this interview with the author.

The critics’ panel, which chose eight books, saw things a little differently. That group chose the books by Abdullaev, Barskova, Gorbunova, and Nekrasova, plus four others:

  • Olga Allenova: Форпост. Беслан и его заложники (Outpost. Beslan and Its Hostages). The sad title here is self-explanatory. Allenova has been a special correspondent for Kommersant, a newspaper, since 2000.
  • Fyodor Derevyankin: Смерти нет. Краткая история неофициального военного поиска в России (There Is No Death. A Brief History of Unofficial Military Search[es?] in Russia. Based on what Gorky Media writes, this book contains stories of people who rebury soldiers who died during World War 2.
  • Tatyana Zamirovskaya: Земля случайных чисел (The Land of Random Numbers). A collection of (per BGS Literary Agency) metaphysical/fantasy/horror short stories, of which I have read several.
  • Nikolai Kononov: Гимны (Hymns) (excerpt). Apparently a book about memory. Proust strikes again, with a mention in this Kommersant review! (With memory books and Proust references abounding these days – including in This Tilting World, by Colette Fellous, which I read in Sophie Lewis’s translation – I started on Proust a couple months ago and am happily getting ready to finish volume two of In Search of Lost Time, thanks to a slow-reading group on Twitter.)

Up Next: Inga Kuznetsova’s Intervals. And some other good things.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, due to dealings (in a good sense!) with some of the authors, publishers, and agents involved with some of these books; I received electronic copies of two or three.