Friday, December 31, 2021

Wishing You a Happy 2022 With 2021’s New Translations!

I decided to wind up posting for 2021 the same way I did last year: with my annual post listing new translations rather than musings on favorites. By late December, I’m already tired of “this year’s books” lists: the only one I ever look forward to is Languagehat’s, for The Millions, so here’s 2021, where I share Hat’s enthusiasm for José Vergara’s All Future Plunges to the Past, which I’ll still be reading for some time, along with Ulysses. This year was such an odd reading year to begin with that I didn’t feel like reminding myself of how many books I didn’t finish! I’m wishing myself better luck next year on that score.

As for this year’s list of translations, to repeat a comment from last year, hmmmm. This year’s total of 39 38 37 is down from last year’s 49. That’s no surprise. Some sites (more and more, it seems) loathe searches and chronological sorting, making it harder to find books. Plus this seemingly never-ending pandemic has affected the publishing industry in lots of ways that slow down production. And then there are titles that I left out because even though the books look like translations, the listings don’t say they’re translations and there’s nothing to look inside on Amazon. Some of those books may be added later. Then there’s the fact that I always just plain miss things, though I collect titles all year. As in years past, I’ve included books of all genres, for all ages. I should mention, too, that I’m grateful for Alexandra Guzeva’s list of “10 best Russian books published in English in 2021” for Russia Beyond: it saved me some time looking for listings.

As with Russian literary awards, women writers are underrepresented on this list, at roughly one third (+1 as of 1/1/22), with three from Maria Stepanova, though she and the other women on the list make me feel better about the numbers because they’re so many good choices. On the bright side: this year’s fraction is certainly better than last year’s total of about nine woman writers for forty-nine titles. (Counts are always weird because of anthologies.) There are lots of classics this year, too… but also some good, varied, contemporary choices.

And now, for real excitement, I’ll paste in my annual inventory of caveats… This list is just a start; I’m always happy to add titles I’ve missed. I may have missed a lot. Okay, I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch! Please add a comment or e-mail me with changes/errors or additions; my address is on the sidebar. NB: I list only new translations. I’ll place a link to this post on the sidebar of the blog for easy reference. I’m taking names and titles for 2022 now, so please start sending them in. Finally, don’t forget the Self-Published Translation post, here: If you have a book to add, please add it in a comment on that page and I’ll be happy to approve it.

Finally, very best wishes for 2022 to everyone! Here’s wishing all of you lots more good books to read in the new year! Happy New Year! C Новым Годом!

Afanasev, A.N.: The Complete Folktales of A. N. Afanas’ev, Volume III, Edited by Jack V. Haney, with Sibelan Forrester; University Press of Mississippi.

Archipriest Avvakum: The Life Written by Himself, translated by Kenneth N. Brostrom; Russian Library/Columbia University Press. This book has lots of helpful apparatus material; I’m looking forward to finally sitting down, by myself, to read it soon.

Baiburin, Albert: The Soviet Passport, translated by Stephen Dalziel; Polity Press.

Barskova, Polina: Air Raid, translated by Valzhyna Mort; a bilingual edition from Ugly Duckling Presse.

Bely, Andrei: The Symphonies, translated by Jonathan Stone; Russian Library/Columbia University Press.

Berberova, Nina: The Last and the First, translated by Marian Schwartz; Pushkin Press.

Bibikhin, Vladimir: The Woods, translated by Arch Tait; Polity.

Bulgakov, Sergius: The Eucharistic Sacrifice, translated by Mark Roosien; Notre Dame Press.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor: A Bad Business: Essential Stories, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater; Pushkin Press.

Etkind, Alexander: Nature’s Evil: A Cultural History of Natural Resources, translated by Sara Jolly; Polity.

Filipenko, Sasha: Red Crosses, translated by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner; Europa Editions, 2021.

Gazdanov, Gaito: An Evening with Claire, translated by Bryan Karetnyk; Pushkin Press.

Gonik, Vladimir: Orchestra, translated by Christopher Culver; Glagoslav.

Lebedev, Sergei: Untraceable, translated by Antonina W. Bouis; New Vessel Press. I read this psychological thriller in Russian and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Lipskerov, Dmitry: The Tool & The Butterflies, translated by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes; Deep Vellum.

Mandelstam, Osip: Black Earth, translated by Peter France; New Directions.

Panchenko, Constantin: Orthodoxy and Islam in the Middle East, translated by Brittany Pheiffer Noble and Samuel Noble; Holy Trinity Publications.

Petrushevskaya, Ludmila: The New Adventures of Helen, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Deep Vellum. Thanks to Jane’s exuberant translations, these stories are so much fun I’ve been rationing them, reading just one at a time.

Pilnyak, Boris: Ivan Moscow, translated by A. Schwartzman; Sublunary Editions, July 2021. According to Sublunary Editions: “Our text is a revised version of A. Schwartzman’s translation of the book (Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1935).” The fact of this book makes me want to go on a Pilnyak kick. 

Pushkin, Alexander: The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories, translated by Anthony Briggs; published, appropriately enough, by Pushkin Press.

Radkevic, Kristina: The Hidden Talent of Phoenix Fox, translated by the author; Wacky Bee. A children’s book with illustrations by Radkevic.

Remizov, Alexei: The Little Devil and Other Stories, translated by Antonina W. Bouis; Russian Library/Columbia University Press.

Ryzov, Igor: The Kremlin School of Negotiation, translated by Alex Fleming; Canongate.

Sharov, Vladimir: Be as Children, translated by Oliver Ready; Dedalus Books, 2021.

Shklovsky, Viktor: On the Theory of Prose, translated by Shushan Avagyan; Dalkey Archive Press, October 2021

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 3, translated by Marian Schwartz; Notre Dame Press.

Stepanova, Maria: War of the Beasts and the Animals, translated by Sasha Dugdale; Bloodaxe.

Stepanova, Maria: In Memory of Memory, translated by Sasha Dugdale; Fitzcarraldo (UK) and New Directions (US).

Stepanova, Maria: The Voice Over: Poems and Essays, edited by Irina Shevelenko with translations by Alexandra Berlina, Sasha Dugdale, Sibelan Forrester, Amelia Glaser, Zachary Murphy King, Dmitry Manin, Ainsley Morse, Eugene Ostashevsky, Andrew Reynolds, and Maria Vassileva; Russian Library/Columbia University Press. I’ve enjoyed my unmethodical reading from this collection.

Tarkovsky, Arseny: Solar Eclipse 1914, translated by Peter Oram with an introduction by Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski; Arc Publications, 2021.

Teffi: Other Worlds: Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints, edited by Robert Chandler, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, as well as (according to this review by Anna Razumnaya for Los Angeles Review of Books) Sara Jolly, Anne Marie Jackson, Nicholas Pasternak Slater, Sabrina Jaszi, "and a number of others" whom I will try to identify; New York Review Books.

Tsvetaeva, Marina: Poem of the End: Six Narrative Poems, translated by Nina Kossman; Shearsman Press, October 2021.

Tynyanov, Yury: The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, translated by Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush; Russian Library/Columbia University Press.

Tynianov, Yuri: Küchlya: Decembrist Poet, translated by Anna Kurkina Rush, Peter France, and Christopher Rush; Academic Studies Press.

Ulitskaya, Ludmila: Just the Plague, translated by Polly Gannon; Granta, September 2021.

Various: White Magic, translated by Muireann Maguire; Russian Life. Thirteen stories, from Amfiteatrov to Zamyatin.

Various: The Trans-Siberian Railway, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Thames & Hudson. Just the few online “gallery” pages for this book by Anna Desnitskaya and Aleksandra Litvina make me miss Russian train trips.

Yakovleva, Yulia: Punishment of a Hunter, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp; Pushkin Press/Vertigo; 2021. I read this enjoyable, atmospheric, historical detective novel in 2017 (previous post).

Yusupova, Lida: The Scar We Know, translated by Ainsley Morse; Cicada Press. Bilingual edition with an introduction by Oksana Vasyakina.

Bonus listing: The Wayland Rudd Collection, from Ugly Duckling Presse “presents artist Yevgeniy Fiks’s archive of Soviet media images of Africans and African Americans—from propaganda posters to postage stamps—mainly related to African liberation movements and civil rights struggles. Meditations, reflections, and research-based essays by scholars, poets, and artists address the complicated intersection of race and Communist internationalism, with particular focus on the Soviet Union’s critique of systemic racism in the US.”

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, including knowing/working with some of the publishers and translators listed in this post.

Up Next: Books by Dmitry Danilov and Kirill Ryabov, which both offer comic relief. And Leonid Yuzefovich’s The Philhellene. Maybe a bit on Alexander Belyaev’s The Air Seller, which held my interest most for its oddities, including the weirdest ending I’ve read in a long time. Pop!

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Alienation, Take #534: Filipenko’s Return to Ostrog and Valitov’s Corner Room

My reading habits have been a bit odd in recent months – Big Book reading and a project have been two of the big reasons – and my thoughts about the books I’ve read seem to differ a bit from usual, too. To be more specific, my thoughts on how to write about the books I’ve read seems to be leaning more toward roundups than posts about single books. That is, in large part, because I’ve been noticing so many common themes.

I started noticing certain common themes about two years ago, in early 2020, when I was preparing a talk for Bowdoin College. I found the text of the talk in my “Travel” folder, which feels especially appropriate since that forty-minute drive (one-way) was my last pre-pandemic travel. After mentioning in my talk that many of the books I’ve translated – among them are Vodolazkin’s Laurus, Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus, and Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky – include complicated childbirth or pregnancies that require hospitalization, I add that “…I see some very distinct and common threads about severe difficulties coming into the world, very often in times that are just as turbulent as the births themselves.” I could add numerous other books, such as Stepnova’s The Garden, a finalist for this year’s Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana awards.

Now, almost two years after I wrote that talk, I seem to be reading a lot of books about children from dysfunctional family situations, kids who are orphaned or, hm, underparented to various degrees, literally and/or figuratively. I’ve already written about several of these books relatively recently – Oksana Vasyakina’s The Wound and Alexei Polyarinov’s The Reef (previous post), Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon (previous post), and Anna Kozlova’s Rurik (previous post) – where the nature and severity of the problems differ greatly. The Women of Lazarus fits this category, too. I think what fascinates me most about these books, as well as the two I’ll write more about below, is the presence of two common threads: forms of alienation and the loss(es) accompanying the alienation. I’m still trying, for example, to get over Vasyakina’s mention of watching The Wall over and over as a small child. Polyarinov’s characters include a cult leader and a mean mother. And the corner of the world Kuznetsova describes is rather hellish, with gang supremacy being the primary (and primal) authority and many characters missing, physically, body parts. Everybody seems to have sustained losses and feel separated from something (often society and the world itself) and/or someone. Saying there’s a lot of trauma in these books puts things mildly.

These are, of course, common themes in world literature and they’re not new at all in Russian literature either – here are links to some previous posts with the words “orphaned” and “orphan” – but I seem to be happening upon books by young writers who address these topics. Posts with “orphanage” include Vera Bogdanova’s Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures and this post will ensure that Sasha Filipenko’s Возвращение в Острог (Return to Ostrog) will be on the list, too: Filipenko’s town called Ostrog (a word that translates to “prison” or “jail”) is home to both an orphanage and a prison, and there’s a spate of suicides among children at the orphanage. And then there’s another book, which I just don’t think I can finish, despite some merits: Timur Valitov’s debut novel, Угловая комната (The Corner Room), where the narrator is a more metaphorical orphan, a young man (a writer) who visits his hometown after the death of his father, whom he barely knew, in part because of the father’s prison sentence.

I read Filipenko’s book very recently but, oddly (albeit probably for good reasons), it hasn’t really stuck with me and I find that Valitov’s, where the language and situations were especially simple, wasn’t staying with me much even as I read. In the case of Ostrog, I think Filipenko’s combination of genres – investigators from Moscow come to Ostrog to look into the suicides and decide whether or not to indict anyone – felt a bit too typical to find a truly distinctive place in my mental filing cabinet. What will never leave me, though, perhaps since I saw it first-hand when I lived in Moscow and volunteered at a shelter, is the literal orphanage theme, where the children are doomed – the Pied Piper of Hamelin is invoked, indicating the fate of rats – and may be released from one prison (the orphanage, where they age out in their teens) only to end up in another, the real jail. That’s where one of the main characters, the hyper-correct Petya, who’s not really of this world, has landed. Reading retention is highest for some of the lively and absurd touches Filipenko inserts into the narrative: a karaoke-singing investigator whose personal life is a wreck, a heartbreaking story he reads, and a local cop’s use of Platonov’s Chevengur to beat Petya. (!) What struck me most about the book, however, is the thread of loneliness, which Kozlov, one of the investigators, calls an “epidemic.” He sees people in cars who aren’t speaking to one another, he’s still yearning for his ex-wife and, well, you can see where this all leads, what with the orphanage and the prison and death and the metaphysical prison of life… It would have made for especially dreary pandemic-era reading if not for Filipenko’s humor, bits of absurdity, and concision.

Filipenko’s book is far, far more vivid than Valitov’s, where I found a whole lot of numbness and apathy, both in a literal sense, with a lot of drinking, and a more figurative sense, with the narrator’s seemingly limited ability to relate to or be around other people. One odd common thread that I caught while writing this post: Valitov’s narrator also mentions Chevengur, which he reads. The narrator says a person is a body full of dumplings (пельмени) disagreeing with Serbinov’s diary entry in Chevengur that says (in, thankfully, Anthony Olcott’s translation) that “Man is not meaning, but a body filled with passionate veins, ravines of blood, mounds, openings, satisfaction, and oblivion.” I think that reaction sums up, even explains, a lot, given the narrator’s distance, or perhaps better yet, his estrangement, from friends and relatives. (It’s no wonder the big soccer tournament that’s in town is just a phantom in the background…) I love pelmeni but, hmm, I hope there’s more to me and you and all the rest of us than dumplings. I think I most appreciate The Corner Room’s everydayness, the alienation and ennui (given the book’s strong French themes) that cloak so many of the narrator’s actions, though the sum of all those literary parts (I’m not quite sure how else to state this) didn’t add up to a novel that I could finish, despite reading 200 (of 318) pages. I suspect it couldn’t keep me going because it lacked what I continue to think of as “new information,” not so much in a literal almanac-like sense but in the sense of new literary angles on life, death, and identity. I wonder if perhaps all the numbness (which felt very, very real and topical but perhaps, paradoxically, not developed enough to make for what I consider compelling fiction) and the rather derivative French element of the book simply left me uninterested. And sad because there’s so much good material. As well as heartened, too, in some sense because Valitov has chosen complex, difficult, material for this, his debut novel. If you’re interested in more on The Corner Room, Galina Yuzefovich wrote a detailed review for Meduza that Google translates well enough into English to give you a much better sense of the book than I can muster. Though The Corner Room clearly isn’t my novel, I’m interested in giving more of Valitov’s work a try.

Up Next: Next week: New translations for 2021. Books by Dmitry Danilov and Kirill Ryabov, which both offer comic relief. And Leonid Yuzefovich’s The Philhellene

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’ve translated books and/or samples of many of the books mentioned in this post.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Yuzefovich Wins Third Big Book Award with The Philhellene

The list of this year’s Big Book Award winners feel like a relief after the strangeness of last year’s results: this year I can understand why each and every one of the winners, in both the jury and public voting, won an award. I’m happiest for Leonid Yuzefovich, who won the top jury award for his third time – he previously won in 2009 and 2016 – for his Филлэлин (The Philhellene). I hope to post about The Philhellene moderately soon (January; I’m way behind on my posts) but for now, here’s my previous description: This novel’s characters converse through journals, letters, and mental conversations. Yuzefovich’s own back-cover description refers to the novel as being closer to “variations on historical themes than a traditional historical novel.”

Second prize went to Maya Kucherskaya’s Лесков. Прозеванный гений (Leskov. The Missed/Overlooked Genius), an extraordinarily detailed biography that’s not the sort of book I’d be likely to sit down and read straight through. It’s something even better, though, a resource. And so Kucherskaya (in book, of course, rather than in person) and I are going to read Leskov together as a winter reading project; I’ve already marked passages. Languagehat will join us, too, since he’s read and written about Leskov. Finally, Viktor Remizov won third prize for his Вечная мерзлота (Permafrost), which I’m very sorry to say did leave me cold, despite my love of historical novels and harsh climates. That said, yes, I understand readers’ appreciation for the novel and its exploration of Stalin-era themes. I may try it again in another year or two since I feel as if translating Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha may have skewed my perceptions of fiction about Siberian exile during the Stalin era.

Reader’s choice awards went to Narine Abgaryan for Симон (Simon), Alexei Polyarinov for Риф (The Reef), and Marina Stepnova for Сад (The Garden). I find it interesting that the jury and public reader winners are so different this year: Polyarinov’s book, for example, came in last in the tally of jury votes, which you can find online here. Most interesting in the jury voting tally: there was only a two-point difference between the top two books by Yuzefovich and Kucherskaya.

I think that covers everything on this dank, dreary December day!

Up Next: A post about recent reading involving orphans, orphanages, and alienation; Dmitry Danilov’s new novel, which I loved; and an end-of-year post with a list of (at least some of!) this year’s new translations.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I’m a member of the Literary Academy, the Big Book’s large jury, and have translated or spent time with many of this year’s Big Book finalist authors. I’ve translated excerpts from two of this year’s finalists: Stepnova’s The Garden and Vodolazkin’s History of Island, which I’ll translate in full.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Big Book Roundup #1: Vasyakina’s Wound, Polyarinov’s Reef, &tc.

I confess that this year’s Big Book reading has been something of a slog. A bit harsh as a lede, I suppose, but there you have it. On the positive side, my reading did start on a good note, with Eugene Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова – often known in English as The History of Island, though more literally it would be something like Justification of the Island – in 2020. Thank goodness for Island! It’s a very good book, funny and wise, where form and content complement each other in very Vodolazkonian ways (previous post). I’m looking forward to translating it in full.

But then. Well. The first books I started after the shortlist was announced in June (previous post) brought little enjoyment. Gigolashvili’s Koka lacks the edgy tension and drive of his wonderful Devil’s Wheel (previous post) and felt like a string of pun-driven gags (“gags” in the joking sense). I read 170 pages. I also read nearly 60 pages (which would probably have been at least 80 with a more rational type and page size) of Remizov’s Permafrost, which also lacks momentum. It feels a bit overly familiar, too, since certain aspects of the distant setting and Stalin-era situations reminded a bit too much of Yakhina’s Zuleikha. (I translated Zuleikha; these sorts of situations are occupational hazards.) Permafrost was a disappointment after enjoying Remizov’s Ashes and Dust (previous post) some years ago. In any case, despite the small print and many pages in these two books, fairness says I’ll attempt returns to both, just to be sure I wasn’t too cranky in the summer heat, something that’s wholly possible. Both books have their fans and though I understand why, when the thought of reading a book makes me not want to read, I take that as a sign and set the book aside. Unfortunately, I had even more difficulty with Buida’s The Wyvern’s Gardens and Dmitriev’s That Shore.

Fortunately, however, my fall reading brought two Big Book finalists that I did enjoy: Oksana Vasyakina’s The Wound and Aleksei Polyarinov’s The Reef. They make an interesting pair since both are suspenseful in their own ways: Vasyakina’s because I wondered how her trip would go, carrying the baggage of memories and, literally, her mother’s ashes, and Polyarinov’s because he wrote a three-thread book that braids together plotlines that all lead to a charismatic professor who founds a cult that’s just begging to be cracked. These two books also make an interesting pair because The Wound is such personal autofiction and The Reef feels very research-driven. And so…

In The Wound Vasyakina offers memories of her mother (her mother’s beautiful hands, her mother’s formal kisses, her last days spent with her mother, among other things); her memories of childhood and adolescence, situations like, say, watching The Wall over and over at age five, when she was often left unattended; and her sexuality and relationships. Polina Barskova’s foreword to The Wound discusses the directness of Vasyakina’s writing; I think Vasyakina’s directness is especially piercing because it’s so precise and detailed, so heartfelt and reasoned. There’s existential dread on the airplane. There are her months spent with her mother’s urn, talking with her mother’s remains… Although Vasyakina herself wonders if she’s done too little to structure The Wound, my answer is a questioning “maybe it’s fine” since this is a book where everything fits together, even the essayistic parts (which made me glad to have finished that final volume of Proust!). That’s because, well, yes, Vasyakina knows her material and writes so simply and, yes, so directly and so precisely about things that are hard to talk about. The Wound is heartbreaking, from the tacky cheap flower on her mother’s urn to feelings of loss, some temporary, others more permanent, but Vasyakina’s hope is that writing the book will heal a wound that felt (still feels?) very raw. (I have to wonder if she might think she will write another one in a few years.) Despite the book’s very clear language and direction, I read The Wound fairly slowly: it was as if the simplicity of Vasyakina’s language poured her stories and memories directly into my head and thoughts, encouraging me to consider them, feel them, and experience them, if only as a thought experiment. Inviting and compelling the reader to do all that – and identify with the author, too – is what makes The Wound feel like such successful autofiction.

Polyarinov’s Reef, on the other hand, made me read faster. As I mentioned, three plot threads converge when (I’ll simplify and shorten a lot here since there are many plot turns; watch out for spoilers) two characters (one American, the other Russian) go to a cult’s compound outside Moscow to track down the third and fourth characters (one a member, the other the cult’s leader and, formerly, the American’s anthropology professor, when she was in a U.S. grad school). I read quickly because I genuinely found the novel suspenseful – what will happen when the first two characters I mentioned find the third and the fourth? – but also because, alas, some passages felt unnecessary and/or too long. My back-of-the-book notes include “the book tries too hard” and I think a big part of that angle on my reading is that it felt like Polyarinov wanted to make use of his study of cults (the back of the book lists lots of sources) while sticking too much background and backstory into the novel, violating Elmore Leonard’s rule about omitting the parts people skip. I also had (smaller) trouble with Lily Smith, the American who studied with the professor, whose name happens to be Garin (a surname that constantly, perhaps purposely, reminded me of Alexei Tolstoy and hyperboloids/death rays). Lily seems a little gullible (or naïve?), particularly when she up and decides to fly off to Moscow and then has a meltdown when someone at a pharmacy near her hotel doesn’t speak English. To his credit, Polyarinov still kept me interested by including some eerie rituals, an occasional Heart of Darkness feel, and difficult familial relations. I thought The Reef felt most believable in the tiny splinter of the Venn diagram showing its overlap with The Wound: fraught mother-daughter relationships and the non-choices they bring since we don’t chose our birthplaces or birthparents. In the end, the contrast in The Reef – the almost mechanistic, constructed feel that comes from all the background and the inevitability of certain plot turns versus the human understanding that went into describing some of the characters’ relationships, emotions, and vulnerabilities – made for one of the most interesting aspects of the reading, despite an ending that’s also a little deterministic and involves both self-forgiveness and a mother-daughter discussion where empathy is mentioned. Then again, if I think more anthropologically, I could make a very strong case that even though those contemporary therapeutic rituals and conclusions might initially feel cliched and cloying to some readers, under closer inspection, they seem utterly realistic, not to mention fitting and appropriate alongside other human patterns (like cult behaviors and ancient rituals) that Polyarinov presents to the reader.

Up Next: A new novel by Dimitry Danilov.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. My work translating Vodolazkin. I received all the Big Book finalists in PDF form because I’m a member of the Big Book Award’s Literary Academy but I read printed books that I purchased myself.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Awards Galore: Yasnaya Polyana Winners & NOS(E) Finalists

Well, I sure have a lot of catching up to do in November! So I’ll start the month with a combipost listing this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award winners and the finalists for the 2021-22 NOS(E) season. And so…

German Sadulaev won the Yasnaya Polyana jury’s contemporary Russian prose award for his Готские письма (literally Goth Letters/Writings), which has been described as a “conceptual collection” (“концептуальный сборник”) and sounds like it does, indeed, contain stories, historical essays (he writes about ancient Goths), and other materials. Meanwhile, Marina Stepnova won the reader’s choice prize for her Сад (The Garden). I’ve read a large chunk and translated a (much smaller) chunk. This excellent piece by Yevgenia Lisitsyna for Gorky Media explains, beautifully, what it feels like to read the book. Finally, Julian Barnes’s Nothing To Be Frightened Of, in a translation by Dmitry Simanovsky and Sergei Polotovsky, won the foreign literature award.

As for the 2021-22 NOS(E) Award, here’s the ten-book shortlist. I didn’t find anything very surprising here and was pleased to see a couple familiar books make the finals. Winners will be announced in early 2022.

  • Oksana Vasyakina’s Рана (The Wound) is one of the two books on the list that I’ve already read in full. Vasyakina’s account of traveling with her mother’s ashes, while considering her relationship with her mother, her own sexuality, and her own writing, is interesting, touching, satisfying, and almost suspenseful. Rightfully a finalist for both NOS(E) and Big Book.
  • I’m now reading Olga Medvedkova’s Три персонажа в поисках любви и бессмертия (Three Characters/Personages in Search of Love and Immortality), though, well, I’m really only sort of reading since I set it aside after enjoying the first personage’s story – the account of a medieval princess is serenely chilling – so much that I didn’t want to disturb the mood. That said, I’m eager to meet the next two personages.
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Кожа (Skin) is written in serial form; it’s about two women: a Black slave and a white serf.
  • I have Valery Pecheikin’s Злой мальчик (Mean/Nasty/Evil Boy – cover art is a snake) in my book cart but haven’t yet read it. It’s slender, with large print and brief vignettes/stories, and it looks like I’ll enjoy it… but I think I’ve been (subconsciously) saving it for when I really need something easy to read in very small chunks. Pecheikin works at Gogol Center.
  • Alexei Polyarinov’s Риф (The Reef) is the second book on this list that I’ve read in full; it’s also a Big Book finalist. Polyarinov offers up three plot lines that come together as he tells of a cult. I have mixed feelings about this page-turner, though it did keep me reading.
  • In its briefest description, Artyom Serebryakov’s Фистула (Fistula) sounds like a novel about “forbidden love” between siblings but a more detailed account on Прочтение discusses literary heritage, which sounds (no surprise here!) far more complex.
  • Andrei Tomilov’s Тайга далекая (The Distant Taiga) is a collection of short stories.
  • Islam Khanipaev’s Типа я (The first-person narrator constantly uses “типа,” which is like “like,” so maybe Like, Me or something similar, though this title makes my head ache!) is the diary of an eight-year-old boy trying to figure out the world.
  • Ivan Shipnigֶóv’s Стрим (Stream) was a 2021 NatsBest finalist, so I’ll recycle, yet again, that description: [Stream] sounds like a polyphonic, “verbatim” book about life among young (Russian) adults. Given that Shipnigov is a screenwriter, this may be a book where the verbatim approach actually works.
  • I included Roman Shmarakov’s Алкиной (Alcinous, I think) in my Big Book longlist post so will recycle that description again, too. The book is set in the fourth century, in the late Roman Empire. Although it’s apparently often described as a “philological novel,” Artyom Roganov’s review for Gorky Media says it’s more. (And even cites humor! We enjoy humor!)

Up next: Another combipost – about Vasyakina’s The Wound and Polyarinov’s The Reef – that I’m ashamed to admit I already wrote but have yet to finalize and post. (That’s what October was like!) A forthcoming novel by Dmitry Danilov. And maybe a bit on the Dyachenkos’ sequel to Vita Nostra (previous post).

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received PDF’s of The Wound and The Reef from Big Book and a PDF of Three Personages from the author’s literary agency but have been doing my reading with print books I purchased. My print copy of the Pecheikin book came from publisher Inspiria.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Good to be Queen?: The Dyachenkos’ The Ritual

Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s novel Ритуал (The Ritual) was recommended to me as “sweet.” And I have to agree that The Ritual is sweet reading: it’s absorbing, light but thoughtful, funny, and mischievous enough in terms of very specific genre play that I’m glad I didn’t know it involves a dragon. Yes, a dragon. The Ritual involves a dragon and a princess. Well, more than one princess, with the main three (for my purposes) being sisters (hm). <Spoilers will now ensue, though I’ll go light on detail.> And so, when the dragon, Arman, starts off his ritual by abducting a princess, he flies away with the wrong one, Yuta, who’s a bit ungainly, perhaps not the damsel a prince – like, let’s say, Austin, who Yuta has a mad crush on – would be eagerest to rescue.

I’ve never read much about dragons so the dragon/princess situation wasn’t the primary attraction for me in The Ritual. (Backstory: I did have E. Nesbit’s The Book of Dragons as a kid but have absolutely no memory of reading it. Only this afternoon did I find the book, its yellow spine so faded I didn’t recognize it.) Even so, Ritual’s (arche)typical characters – handsome prince, three princess sisters, the dragon-human who has feelings, too – and the plotlines about love, happiness, transformations, growing up, and rescue, felt pretty familiar. What made The Ritual enjoyable was watching the Dyachenkos change, flip, and mix things up so plot twists and turns sometimes resulted in turning happy to unhappy, good to bad. And vice versa.

I’m sure I would have loved The Ritual as a young adult: Yuta’s an independent (sometimes even a bit unruly and moody) young woman who gets used to her lot and manages to settle into detention at Arman’s castle. She covertly explores. Nobody seems to be coming to her rescue so she makes the best of life in the sticks with activities like learning to read very telling prophecies engraved on stone in the castle, embroidering a towel with a fire-breathing dragon, and even asking Arman for a chance to fly on his back. (That scene’s especially sweet, almost a bit steamy.) I also need to mention the magic mirror at Arman’s castle. The mirror shows events in the greater world. Thanks to a description that includes the words паутина (a web, yes, it’s a spider’s here but even so…) and сеть (network), which are both used for the Internet, The Ritual, which dates back to the 1990s, almost feels like a prophecy (not one from the castle, ) of live streaming.

The ending of The Ritual is a bit too open-ended to say that it’s certainly happy (or otherwise) but the Dyachenkos certainly succeed in bringing Yuta, Austin, Arman, and the reader through a series of rituals involving love, disillusionment, putting aside childhood things and learning to be an adult, learning to fly, and lots of other things. And it’s sweet without crossing into treacle or saccharine territory. In short, even if The Ritual didn’t grab me quite as much as the Dyachenkos’ Vita Nostra – I’m now reading the sequel that just came out – it made for satisfying, low-stress reading during a busy time. Which is, in itself, a happy ending.

Bonus! Julia Meitov Hersey – whose English translations of the Dyachenkos’ Vita Nostra and Daughter from the Dark, are already available – has also translated The Ritual into English, though there is not yet a publication date.

Up Next: Oksana Vasyakina’s The Wound, Alexei Polyarinov’s The Reef, and a forthcoming novel by Dmitry Danilov. And the afore-mentioned sequel to Vita Nostra. Among other things.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Julia Meitov Hersey and I know each other through social media and hope to meet in real life one day.