Saturday, June 26, 2021

The 2021 Yasnaya Polyana Award Longlist

Well how about that? Somehow I’d completely forgotten the Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist was on the way… and then there it was, announced, earlier this week. There are 45 books on the list; roughly half are somehow familiar (even very familiar) but the rest are somehow new to me. Which is why I so love longlists, something I seem to say over and over...

First off: seven of the books and authors on the list coincide with the 2021 Big Book Award shortlist (last week’s post): Yury Buida’s Сады Виверны (The Wyvern’s Gardens), Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka), Maya Kucherskaya’s Лесков. Прозёванный гений (Leskov. The Missed Genius (almost in the sense of “the one who got away,” albeit with a sleepy tinge)), Alexei Polyarinov’s Риф (The Reef), Viktor Remizov’s Вечная мерзлота (Permafrost), Marina Stepnova’s Сад (The Garden), and Leonid Yuzefovich’s Филлэлин (The Philhellene). Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth) (previous post) won the 2020 National Bestseller Award and was a 2020 Big Book finalist.

There are other familiar names on the list – German Sadulaev, Alla Gorbunova, and Shamil Idiatullin are but a few – though I’ve only read two books on the list: the afore-mentioned Earth and Sergei Lebedev’s Дебютант, a very absorbing thriller with parallel plotlines and timelines that’s known in English, in Antonina Bouis’s translation for New Vessel Press, as Untraceable. I’ve read chunks of Stepnova’s book as well as Sergei Samsonov’s Высокая кровь (High Blood); I translated samples from both. On another note: roughly a third of the authors on the list are women. Among them are Vera Bogdanova and Elena Posvyatovskaya, whose Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures) and Важенка (Vazhenka), respectively, are already either in my book cart or on order.

So now the especially fun part: a few unfamiliar authors and titles that sound promising and are already available in book form:

  • Keren Klimovski’s Время говорить (Time to Speak?) is set in Israel in the late 1990s and early 2000s, combining genres (detective, family, journey) as it tells of a teenage girl whose parents divorce.
  • Given the dearth of information about it and Google’s habit of bringing up stories about (presumably wooly?) mammoths, I’ll let Evgeny Mamontov’s Музыка в аэропорту (Airport Music) remain a mystery. Particularly since I haven’t been in an airport in ages…
  • Natalia Repina’s Жизнеописание Льва (The Story of Lev’s Life) is on order; it’s a book about a young man who’s a librarian. Set in Moscow and Peredelkino.
  • And, since I can’t find a fourth book that’s utterly unfamiliar as well as appealing, here’s a bit of a cheat that truly does sound good: Olga Medvedkova’s Три персонажа в поисках любви и бессмертия (Three Characters in Search of Love and Immortality), which I have a PDF copy of thanks to Medvedkova’s literary agency, Elkost. No wonder Medvedkova’s name sounded familiar!

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. I’ve translated excerpts from several of the books on this list and received books, virtual and print, from their publishers and agents. I’ve also translated books by two of the award’s jurors. 

Up next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon and Alexander Pelevin’s Pokrov-17.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Lizok’s Summer Reading Plan: The 2021 Big Book Shortlist

On Wednesday the Big Book Award announced a list of thirteen finalists for the 2021 prize. I’ve read very little from this year’s longlist thus far so can’t decide if I’m surprised that some authors (Vera Bogdanova, for example) didn’t make the list, though I know I’m a little disappointed Bogdanova’s novel – as well as, for various reasons, books by Sergei Nosov, Pavel Krusanov, and Irina Bogatyreva – wasn’t on it. Lots of familiar, perennial nominees and “usual suspects” were left out, too: Ilya Boyashov, Shamil Idiatullin, Zakhar Prilepin, Andrei Rubanov, Sergei Samsonov, and Roman Senchin among them. And Alexander Pelevin’s Pokrov-17, which recently won the National Bestseller Award, isn’t a Big Book finalist either. I’m reading Pokrov-17 now and enjoying it for its suspense and weirdness but haven’t yet read enough to go on record saying more than that.

In any case, the good news is that this year’s books look far more promising than last year’s, though (as my husband likes to say) that sets the bar pretty low. I’m sure some of my positive feelings about the 2021 list involve my familiarity with some of the authors: I’ve translated three of them and know four more. I’ve read and enjoyed (or at least finished!) books by others. And those I haven’t read generally sound interesting. Unfortunately, my biggest regret about the list is that (here I go again!) only four of the thirteen books were written by women, though (as always), I don’t know much about the overall pool of Big Book nominees. I’m happiest because I’m glad this list looks likely to keep me reading.

And so. Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order by author surname:

  • In Narine Abgaryan’s Симон (Simon), a man’s death brings together his former loves, who tell their stories. I read a large chunk of Simon on my reader but am going to reread (and finish) the novel on paper. (I think I’m getting crankier and crankier about electronic reading! I really need to flip those pages.) 
  • Dmitry Bavilsky’s Желание быть городом (The Desire to be a City?) describes itself in the book’s subtitle as “Итальянский травелог эпохи Твиттера в шести частях и тридцати пяти городах” – “A Twitter-era Italian travelogue, in six parts and thirty-five cities.” The publisher’s description uses the terms “documentary novel” and “autofiction.” I’m not much for travelogues but I do like, even relish, the thought of Bavilsky describing works of art he hasn’t seen.
  • Yury Buida’s Сады Виверны (The Wyvern’s Gardens, I guess?) sounds difficult to summarize with its three countries and four temporal settings so I’m just going to focus on thinking about the word “wyvern” for now. And buy the book.
  • Oksana Vasyakina’s Рана (The Wound) may well be the book on the list that intrigues me the most, with (apparently) an account of the narrator traveling with her mother’s ashes, bringing them to be buried. I read Polina Barskova’s introduction and the beginning of Vasyakina’s text on my reader but am going to order a print copy so I can fully appreciate Vasyakina’s writing.
  • Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова (The History of Island), which I loved on the first reading for its chronicle-like format (sometimes!) and stylization (varying!) and blend of timelines. It’s a very Vodolazkonian novel; he’s exceptionally skilled at writing about favorite themes from new angles that make his material fresh, relevant, and related to his others works without repeating them. I’m working on a short sample translation now and had a good laugh remembering how cats came to be.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka) is a continuation (of sorts?) of The Devil’s Wheel (previous post), which I loved so very much about ten years ago. Two friend who’ve already read Koka enjoyed it. It’s in my reading cart and will probably be the book I choose after I finish Pokrov-17. Like The Devil’s Wheel it’s very long (720 pages) so should keep me busy!
  • Andrei Dmitriev’s Этот берег (That Shore) apparently tells the story of a retired schoolteacher who’s been living in Russia then moves to Ukraine, where he finds a new life for himself.
  • Maya Kucherskaya’s Лесков. Прозёванный гений (Leskov. The Missed Genius – I almost want to say something like “slept through” or “yawning” here to capture the sense of sleeping!) is a very big book (656 pages, 668 grams) about Nikolai Leskov. My life is embarrassingly under-Leskoved but, inspired by factors including Languagehat’s posts about Leskov and, subsequently, some personalized reading recommendations plus my own impressions after reading “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” back in my first youth, I’m looking forward to letting Kucherskaya, a kind person and a good reader, guide me to and through more Leskov.
  • Vladimir Paperny’s Архив Шульца (Shults’s Archive) looks, hm, potentially interesting, if a bit overwhelming at first: a Russian émigré living in Los Angeles receives a package of materials that turn out to form a family archive. A blurb from Alexander Genis uses the word “мозаика” (mosaic), something I confirmed by paging through a PDF of the book. We’ll see how it goes!
  • Alexei Polyarinov’s Риф (The Reef): I’ll leave the description to the publisher (here) and add that I’m looking forward to this one after finding Polyarinov’s Center of Gravity (previous post) fairly good.
  • Viktor Remizov’s Вечная мерзлота (Permafrost) is another heavyweight, clocking in at 925 grams (over 800 pages of rather small type, yeow) with a story based on actual events, about prisoners laying a railroad line in Siberia during 1949-1953. I enjoyed Remizov’s Ashes and Dust back in 2014 (previous post) and praised Remizov’s storytelling so am looking forward to Permafrost, which comes highly praised by Maya Kucherskaya and Vasily Avchenko.
  • I read a large chunk of Marina Stepnova’s Сад (The Garden) on my e-reader and found that it interested me far less for its nineteenth-century plot and characters (which, after translating two twentieth-century Stepnova books, made me feel a bit off-kilter) than for its stylized language. I had fun translating a sample. I’m going to buy a paper copy of The Garden since it’s another book that didn’t feel right to read electronically. (Have I mentioned that I don’t like e-reading?)
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Филлэлин (The Philhellene) is a novel where 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.” This is one of those books where I’ve purposely avoided learning too much before reading.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The Usual. I’ve translated excerpts from two of these books and entire books by three of the finalist authors. I know other authors on the list and have ties to some of the others through publishers and literary agents.

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I’m translating and enjoying for the third time but still don’t know how to write about. Vodolazkin’s The History of Island, which I’m rereading the way it should be read – slowly; A. Pelevin’s Pokrov-17, and maybe Alexander Belyaev’s The Air Seller, quick reading that I started while waiting for Pokrov-17 to arrive…

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Books by the Calendar: Charskaya’s School Year and Baranskaya’s Week

I think I’ve been an impatient reader during the last few months. I’m not sure if that’s because of some sort of strange psychological aspect of finally, finally, finally nearing the end of Proust – only half a volume to go, oh, will I be glad to finish! – or because I haven’t been interested in much of the contemporary Russian fiction in my new acquisitions cart. I’m suspecting the latter: I’ve long been moody about my reading choices and I’ve been feeling like nothing fits. Though when something fits (like Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon), I devour it.

Fortunately, I amassed a good selection of twentieth-century books in recent months, leading to a reread of Natalya Baranskaya’s Неделя как неделя (A Week Like Any Other) and then a first reading of Lidia Charskaya’s Записки институтки (hm, maybe Notes of a Boarding School Girl?). They’re very, very different – not surprising given that A Week is dated 1969 and Notes is dated 1901 – and I enjoyed them both, perhaps largely because they’re short, tidy, straightforward works of prose that read easily yet won’t leave me alone. (Unlike Proust: ISOLT simply slithers from my memory!) Both works are also set within very delineated timeframes: Baransksya describes a week in the life of a harried working mother and Charskaya tells the story of a tween girl from Ukraine who’s sent to a boarding school in St. Petersburg.

I first read A Week Like Any Other (brief sample of Pieta Monks’s translation, here) about thirty years ago. I don’t remember if I read in English or Russian but do remember that A Week was generally mentioned along with the phrase “double burden” during discussions of feminism and the numerous work-and-home responsibilities Soviet women were supposed to handle. Olga, A Week’s first-person narrator, works with polymers for sewer pipes and roofs, and she breaks her story into daily installments. The week coincides with the time allotted for answering a questionnaire about family life, to learn why women aren’t having more children. Olga makes a glossary of key words for the topic, covering the Russian alphabet from “a” (аборт/abortion) to “я” (я/I), with words like illness, children, nerves, motherhood, and money in between.

Baranskaya’s writing isn’t beautiful and lovely but given the topic as well as the novella’s effect and pace, I feel like calling it something like “utilitarian” is far higher praise: she covers a week in fifty pages, outlining work problems (falling behind schedule, missing days because her children are sick, relationships with her co-workers, a dreaded political session), family duties (shopping during lunch breaks, housework, taking care of sick children), marital relations (honeymoon flashback, arguments when hubby doesn’t want to help), concerns about her hair, and much, much more. On Friday the thirteenth, she loses something at the office and admits she, too, feels lost. Olga’s candidness about flaws – her own, the system’s, her husband’s – and her unsentimental optimism (I think that’s what I’d call it), plus Baranskaya’s ability to describe the breakneck pace of Olga’s life, make A Week very affecting. That’s how I felt back in the eighties and that’s how I feel now, too, particularly because I read it during a very stressful week, though at least my problem (a severe case of feline non-recognition aggression) could be resolved within a quick couple of weeks, unlike, say, the timesuck of Soviet-era food shopping. Read now, A Week feels like a period piece in some senses (again: Soviet-era shopping procedures) but that’s a plus because the novella feels so true to life, whether you remember those years (I do, albeit a bit later) or are learning about them from literature and history books. What gives A Week its emotional power is Olga’s straightforward (that word again!) account of her feelings, personal situation, and all that rushing, things I think most of us can relate to even now in 2021, if only on some lesser level. Languagehat also wrote about A Week; he researched a literary reference in the text.

Charskaya’s Notes generates empathy differently: this novel(la?) about a girl who leaves home for boarding school and makes friends with Nina, a Georgian princess (!) is sweet and might verge on saccharine if its portrayal of affection and friendship, beloved schoolmates and teachers, and family ties didn’t feel so heartfelt. I came to love the characters, too. Notes is something of a tear-jerker, so, yes, dear reader, I finished the book with damp eyes and a lump in my throat. Lyuda, the first-person narrator, is the daughter of a famous, heroic, and fallen Cossack officer – this is why Lyuda’s given a spot at a school so fancy that (mild spoiler alert!) royals come to visit the school, including Lyuda’s classroom. (And of course Sa Majesté Impériale knows her father’s name.) Among the quirky details of the time: he hands out cigarettes as souvenirs.

Charskaya, who apparently wrote the book from her own notes and experiences, focuses on a defined temporal setting: most of a school year, working in celebrations of Christmas and Easter that bring to mind Pasternak’s Zhivago, where the church calendar has significance. (Charskaya’s Wikipedia page does mention Pasternak, hm...) Descriptions of Christmas are lovely, with trees and tasty care packages, but Lent and Easter were more interesting, for confessions and forgiveness – Lyuda wants to forgive everyone and even confesses to throwing balls of bread at her friends – as well as a harbinger of death. I think my favorite aspect of Notes, though, is the day-to-day: nervousness when answering in class, descriptions of the dortoir, mentions of sweets and dining hall offerings, and rivalries among the girls. Nothing goes to waste here: an episode where Nina brings a crow into the classroom and is punished for it reveals many girls’ generosity. It also made me laugh.

My book with Notes also includes a prequel that tells Nina’s story. It’s apparently much beloved, though I’m not sure I want to read it. Nina’s a good character – smart, sharp, loyal to those she loves – and she’s proud of her heritage but I think I’d rather leave her story and Lyuda’s stories as they are for now. Judging from comments on Russian book sites, Notes is popular among young readers. I’m sure I would have loved it at Lyuda’s age (elevenish), and I enjoyed it very much now, both as a sentimental tale (no spoilers!) and as a very vivid, detailed, exuberant, and often humorous account of a certain angle on a (fictionalized) life at the turn of the last century.

Up Next: Big Book finalists. Vodolazkin’s History of Island, yes, I’m still reading; I’m also translating a brief excerpt. Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon, which I’m translating, meaning I keep discovering and connecting more and more details. Belyaev’s The Air Seller.