Sunday, January 17, 2021

Fun With Genres

I think I’ve mentioned many times that I love literary genres, from eighteenth-century Russian sentimentalism to socialist realism to all sorts of detective and science fiction/fantasy/weird novels. That’s not an exhaustive list; I’m open to any century, old or new. It’s not the labelling I’m enamored with: I love recognizing familiar patterns as I read and I love watching authors play with (perceived) genre norms in their books. I’m sure that’s why I sped through Boris Akunin’s first seven or eight Fandorin novels and why Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn is such a favorite. As are Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” and Pushkin’s Belkin Tales, too. How the Steel Was Tempered and Cement weren’t required socialist realism reading in college but I devoured them anyway. I could list dozens more books but will say instead that I started early, reading lots of science fiction and fantasy chapter books as a kid, and revisiting Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time over and over.

I never stopped reading detective novels or books with varying degrees of fantasy and/or science fiction elements – they’re wonderfully endemic in contemporary literature – but I’ve found myself gravitating to them more than usual during the pandemic. Genres particularly draw me because of their adherence (sometimes loose, sometimes close) to certain strictures, things like pacing standards, typical plot twists, and stock characters. Many of Vladimir Propp’s fairy tale elements apply to contemporary novels, too, and I see genres and archetypes as close, friendly cousins. As I mentioned above, I especially like reading books that blend and twist genre norms: these days, the combination of pattern recognition and unexpected mashups of familiar storylines, characters, and tropes feels more satisfying than ever. I’d even been planning a sort of genrefest for myself: the idea came when I ordered a small heap of socialist realism and fantasy novels. Then the books got set aside when some manuscripts and books for review floated in.

One of the first manuscripts was Eugene Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова (which I’ve seen called The History of Island), a fantastic (on all counts) blend of medieval chronicle and what, hm, I might call fantasy, given that certain characters live a very long time. Island tells historical and personal stories of strife, isolation (perfect for a pandemic!), and development. There are two timelines. One follows the chronicle and details centuries of Island history, the other is a more anecdotal and (ha) cinematic account from two centuries-old characters. I’ve long thought of Vodolazkin’s novels, which present spiralized time and wrinkled history, as a personal Vodolazkin genre: I’ve called his Solovyov and Larionov, Laurus, and The Aviator a triptych but have now officially expanded that to a quadriptych, thanks to Island. Island is delicate and detailed so not my ideal book to blog about after electronic reading. Although it’s easy to remember the basics, Island is the sort of book that inspires dozens of notes, exclamation marks (talking animals!), and smiling marginalia on paper I can flip through, to recall and revisit favorite spots. I do see an upside in this: I want/plan to reread Island in print so I can examine the novel’s multiple layers and themes before writing more about it.

Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra was in my genrefest pile of printed books, a good thing since I read it in lengthy binges. It’s a page-turner. I’ve seen Vita Nostra described as “urban fantasy” and that does sound about right. Beyond fantasy and the supernatural, though, there’s also a nice coming-of-age story as Sashka Samokhina finds her true powers at the Institute of Special Technologies, a school where (warning: slight spoilers ahead!) student development includes (literal) metamorphoses. And time can go into repeat mode. (Another slight spoiler: at one point, Sashka relives December 16 for many days in a row. Reading that section of the book on the very same date felt a bit creepy.) There was lots more to keep me binging with Vita Nostra: Sashka is a strong young heroine, there’s mental training and discipline, the alternate world/universe is vivid, and there are language-related revelations toward the end that made me want to go right back to the beginning of the novel and read it again. I read Vita Nostra in Russian, but it’s also available in Julia Meitov Hersey’s translation from HarperCollins.

For better or worse, I didn’t go back to reread Vita Nostra. I switched to a retro detective novel instead. Valeria Verbinina’s Театральная площадь (Theater Square), the second in Verbinina’s series starring detective Ivan Opalin, was also in my genre shipment. I didn’t find Theater Square as absorbing as its predecessor, Moscow Time (previous post), but I’m a sucker for Stalin-era settings and the didactic layer of Verbinina’s novels fascinates me. Sometimes it almost feels as if she makes sure to mention things like Stalin portraits hanging in offices and accusations of Trotskyite activity to remind readers (particularly young readers who haven’t heard stories first-hand from relatives?) about Soviet-era history. And communal apartments. Theater Square isn’t just history + detective, though. It also involves the Bolshoy Ballet, making it a ballet novel as well. Both Theater Square and Yulia Yakovleva’s Каннибалы – literally Cannibals but a.k.a. The Dazzlings, a contemporary novel about strange happenings at the Bolshoy (that I didn’t finish) – include strong reminders about the interconnection of politics and theater, too, as well as the building’s looping labyrinths. Among other things, Theater Square includes a cameo with Stalin and there are romantic and even somewhat gothic subplots. Bonus: Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow) perfume is mentioned again, earning the novel a tag! On a personal note, I loved the description of the upper tier of Bolshoy seats, where I sat (how strange fate can be!) not long after a murder investigation in my Moscow dorm.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s odd that I’ve focused so much on genres in recent months. But it makes complete sense. Thinking about genres doesn’t just order my reading a bit more than usual, it also helps me make sense of my thoughts and feelings about what’s happening in the world. When there’s instability, I tend to seek resolutions, something detective novels often supply. When there are real-life oddities that I simply can’t fathom, it helps to read about (other) strange physical and psychic places: weird fiction has already saved the day many times! And when I’m looking for something more philosophical about history and the passage of time, novels like Vodolazkin’s – which are so much a part of my thinking anyway, after translating three – feel reassuring and even consoling, particularly given that they include elements of fantasy and mysticism. Perhaps the greatest reassurance and consolation I receive from books – from every book I read, whether I finish or not – is the gift of opportunities to keep thinking about literary strictures, structures, characters, and messages, all of which help me both escape and find perspective on current events that keep proving (cliché alert!) that truth really can be far stranger than fiction.

Up Next: I’m reading away but not quite sure what comes next! (Alienation seems to be a strong theme, though…) A post about NOSE Award winners must be in the cards soon, too.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Eugene Vodolazkin sent me an electronic copy of Island. Translator Julia Meitov Hersey is an online friend whom I hope to meet (we don’t even live far apart!) once this mess is finally over.


  1. I'm really enjoying the new Vodolazkn--any chance you'll be translating it?

    1. It's great to hear from you, Eliot, I'm glad to hear you're enjoying Остров, Eliot! I'd love to translate it.

  2. Great to hear this review of Vita Nostra! I've just come across this book, too, and was intrigued by it. Thank you for blogging!

    1. Thank you for checking in on Vita Nostra, Olga! I'd love to hear more about what you thought of it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and want to read more Dyachenko books))