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.