Saturday, February 27, 2021

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Chekhov (Where “It” All Began), Chukhovskaya, Chizhov

It’s been nearly three years since I last wrote an alphabet post but I’ve been thinking about Chekhov so much lately that it’s time to finally move on from Х to Ч, fill in another letter, and mention a few Ч-named writers I’ve particularly enjoyed reading.

I always seem to reminisce a fair bit about Anton Pavlovich Chekhov because his “The Bet” (“Пари”) was the first piece of Russian literature (other than Baba Yaga stories) that I ever read. In sixth grade. (I went down Memory Lane on “The Bet” back in 2010, for Chekhov’s hundred and fiftieth birthday, here.) I went on to take a Chekhov course in college and, rather predictably, most enjoyed longer stories, with “Ward Number Six” (in Ronald Hingley’s translation) my big favorite. “Дама с собачкой” (“The Lady With the Dog” (oops, almost “God”!)) was the first Chekhov I read in Russian, in that same era. I’ve gone on to (re)read lots of other short Chekhov stories, particularly when a collection from Restless Books – Chekhov: Stories for Our Time, with an introduction by Boris Fishman – brought me back to A.P. back in 2018 (previous post) and got me thinking I needed to do better justice to the modest Russian-language collections of long and short stories I’d purchased a few years earlier.

One of the works in one of those collections is Моя жизнь (My Life), which I started reading last year, in preparation for a visit to Duke University in March 2020. Of course the visit didn’t happen. And, predictably, I didn’t finish My Life, which Carol Apollonio’s Chekhov class was going to be discussing during my visit. I had a hard time concentrating on my reading in the early pandemic months but am plotting a reattempt at My Life and some other Chekhov reading. I’m especially motivated because Carol sent me a copy of her book, Simply Chekhov, which examines A.P.’s life and work. I love talking with Carol about Russian literature, so who better to guide me? I have two other longer works – “Степь” (“The Steppe”) and “Дуэль” (“The Duel”) – that we didn’t get around to in college, so there’s plenty of new material to go along with old favorites like “Gooseberries.”

Now, a confession: I don’t have many other real, true favorite Ч writers. But there are some interesting books to mention. I read and enjoyed a shortened version of N.G. Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (Benjamin R. Tucker’s translation, revised and abridged by Ludmilla B. Turkevich, in a Vintage edition with an Edward Gorey cover design) back in grad school and have happy memories of that experience simply because I was reading at the ocean. I remember very little (meaning: pretty much nothing at all) about the novel, but oh my, my marginalia tell me the book thoroughly engaged me at the time. I sometimes feel guilty for not remembering even a basic plot, though I’m not sure I feel guilty enough for an imminent reread.

Lidia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna, however, has long been a genuine favorite: I’ve read it several times, always appreciating the simplicity of the form and language, which leave so much room for Chukovskaya to offer a close-up of the devastating effects of totalitarianism (previous post). It was a lovely surprise to look at my Chukovskaya book today and find that the afterword I actually read and enjoyed (marginalia tell all!) back in 2011 was written by Olga Zilberbourg, a writer I met in 2016 at a translator conference. I wrote about her Like Water story collection last year (previous post). My book with Sofia Petrovna also includes Спуск под воду (Going Under), which I haven’t yet read, though I’ll put the book in my trolley and consider it to soon.

Contemporary fiction wouldn’t have given me a favorite Ч-named writer if Evgeny Chizhov hadn’t decided to use a pseudonym. His Translation from a Literal Translation (previous post), which I thought was very, very good, is plenty to put him on the list even if it’s his only novel that I’ve finished.

Charskaya, reading at the dacha  

My pandemic book buying binges b(r)ought me two other books (new acquisitions already in the trolley, unread, so not yet favorites) by Ч-named writers: a book containing Lidia Charskaya’s Записки институтки (something like: Notes of a [Female] College/Institute Student) and Княжна Джаваха (Princess Dzhavakha, a.k.a. Little Princess Nina, I believe, in Hana Mus̆ková’s translation?), which both look promising. And then there’s Anton Chizh’s Машина страха (maybe The Fear Machine?), a retro detective novel set in 1898 Petersburg. Of course I love detective novels. Who knows how this one will be, but, yes, I’m still rather stuck in the past – or in various alternate, often futuristic, realities – and having difficulty reading fiction about this century since characters are rarely masked up, vaccinated against COVID-19, or staying far, far away from each other. Fortunately, Russian fiction offers plenty of fantasy, mysticism, and other twists on what we conventionally consider reality.

Up Next: Ksenia Buksha’s Advent and Eugene Vodolazkin’s History of Island.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Carol Apollonio is a friend and colleague. As is Olga Zilberbourg, though we’ve only met once in person; she has reviewed a couple of my translations.


Photo by M.G. Nikitin, public domain, obtained through Wikipedia.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The 2021 National Bestseller Award Longlist/Nominees

I’ve written many times about how much I love literary award longlists so it will come as no surprise that I was happy to see last week’s announcement of this year’s nominees (a.k.a. longlist) for the National Bestseller Award. The NatsBest list is always especially interesting because it includes nominators’ names. You can find the list of nominators and nominees here. Or click on book covers here to read nominators’ notes. This year, 43 books were nominated. I won’t list them all (and I’m avoiding reading too much about some of them, lest I spoil the plots for myself or you) but here are a few, many of which I’d never heard of, which is, of course, why I love these lists so much.

  • I’ve only read a little of Ksenia Buksha’s Адвент (Advent) but I do think it’s safe to say it offers scenes with a family – two parents and one child who’s opening windows on an advent calendar – as well as windows into the parents’ memories. I love Buksha’s sense of humor, formal shifts, and play with language so am crossing my fingers that the book holds together! (Based on what I’ve heard, I’m pretty sure it will but I’ve jinxed myself too many times in the past…) (Nominator: Polina Boyarkina)
  • I have an electronic copy of Inga Kuznetsova’s Изнанка (Inside Out, in Muireann Maguire’s as-yet-unpublished translation), which is told from the point of view of none other than the COVID-19 virus. I’ve read the beginning and am not sure that’s my thing (I’ve gone on record before saying I’m not good with books where the subject matter is this up-to-the-minute/in-the-news) but I’ll give it another try or two or three because I so enjoyed Inga’s Intervals. (Nominator: Igor Voevodin)
  • Alla Gorbunova, who won the NOSE Award last week, has a new book coming out: Другая материя (Other Matter?). (Nominator: Julia Goumen)
  • I was very excited to see Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka) on the list: it apparently continues the adventures of a character from Gigolashvili’s Четрово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel), which I loved so very much some years ago (previous post). (Nominator: Elena Shubina)
  • Sergei Volkov’s Ильич (Ilich) sounds like a book about the nineties that includes a Lenin statue. I lived across from a Lenin statue for the 1992-1993 academic year so that’s a good start. (Nominator: Petr Shepin)
  • Покров-17 (Pokrov-17 since it’s a toponym) sounds like another mystical, fast-paced novel from Alexander Pelevin. (Nominator: Anna Dolgareva)
  • I did a doubletake when I saw the name Sergey Shoygu, who was nominated for a story collection, Про вчера (About Yesterday): Shoygu’s name has long been familiar since his resume includes stints as Russia’s Minster of Defense and Minister of Emergency Situations. (Nominator: Oleg Zobern, who writes that his grandmother and his friends enjoyed the stories, too.)

Although there are lots of other interesting titles by familiar authors, here are a few I’d never heard of that sound good in some way or other:

  • Natalya Solovyova’s На берегу Тьмы (On the Bank of the Tma, which is a tributary of the Volga in the Tver area, those the word “тьма” carries other meanings, including “darkness,” “ignorance,” and, keeping things simple, “multitudes”) sounds like a historical novel based on true incidents; it’s set in the early twentieth century. (Nominator: Rusina Shikhatova)
  • Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Chzhan and Other River Creatures, perhaps?) by Vera Bogdanova concerns digital concentration camp and “total chipization.” (Nominator: Alexei Portnov)
  • Anton Sekisov’s Бог тревоги (The God of Anxiety or The Anxiety God, perhaps?) is a bit of a cheat since Sekisov was nominated for the NatsBest in 2019. I didn’t remember that, though, so here’s a new book, which is apparently about a young Moscow writer who moves to Petersburg and finds that his Wikipedia page says he’s died. (Nominator: Konstantin Tublin, who says the novel offers “an unexpected take on Petersburg metaphysics and Petersburg myths,” things I always seem to enjoy)

Up Next: Ksenia Buksha’s Advent or Eugene Vodolazkin’s History of Island.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. And knowing some of the nominators and authors (I’m especially happy for Gigolashvili!) and receiving electronic versions of the Kuznetsova book.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

NOS(E) Awards Go to Gorbunova and Barskova

The NOS(E) Award held its annual ceremony last week, presenting its jury prize to Alla Gorbunova for her Конец света, моя любовь (The End of the World, My Love). The critics’ panel prize went to Polina Barskova for her Седьмая щелочь: тексты и судьбы блокадных поэтов (The Seventh Alkali [a sort of cleansing wave/wash]: The Texts and Fates of Blockade Poets). The readers’ choice award went to Ragim Dzhafarov’s Сато (Sato). I haven’t (yet) read any of the books but have a few notes to add...

  • Languagehat is way ahead of me on reading Gorbunova. He blogged about The End of the World, My Love last summer, here. I did, finally, buy Вещи и ущи, which is winging (or maybe swimming?) its way to me from Russia. I’ve never been very good about keeping at short story collections but Gorbunova’s books look and sound promising.
  • Words Without Borders published “#Russophonia: New Writing in Russia” last week and the selection includes several of Gorbunova’s stories from Вещи и ущи, which translator Elina Alter calls Ings & Oughts. There is also video of Gorbunova reading one of the stories. Here’s the title page for “#Russophonia”. And there’s more! Kelly Writers House hosted an online “#Russophonia” program that you can watch here. There’s lots of good stuff in both places!
  • Deep Vellum will be publishing translations of Gorbunova’s two story collections. (This is a very recent signing; I know nothing else!)

Up Next: Most likely Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова, which I’m rereading (a printed copy is such a relief!) and which I think I’ll continue calling History of Island, at least for now. As I’ve mentioned before, recent months have brought lots of unexpected and/or unsolicited electronic and print books, resulting in some weird reading habits! I’m hoping for an on-paper reread of one of those unexpected books very soon, too.

Disclaimers & Disclosures: The usual, for a couple of the figures and entities mentioned in this post.