Sunday, October 23, 2016

The 2016 NOSE Award Longlist

Thank goodness for the NOSE Award longlist! I have to admit that a rainy Saturday and a windy, blustery Sunday weren’t very conducive to writing trip reports or book reports… but an award longlist (oops, almost a “lostlist”) feels like just the thing. And the NOSE Award—a program of the Prokhorov Foundation—is always a quirky matter (I still don’t quite understand the NOSE), whether we’re talking about a longlist, shortlist, or award final, and that makes NOSE all the more appealing today. Beyond that, there’s not much time to post the list: the shortlist is apparently on the express, scheduled for debate and arrival on November 2. So here’s the whole longlist, in the order presented on the Prokhorov Foundation site and with my completely inconsistent transliterations of names:

  • Yuri Buida’s Цейлон (Ceylon), which has already hit other longlists and which I’ve read (previous post).
  • Eugene Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator), which is already on the Big Book shortlist and which I’m already translating and loving all over again (previous post).
  • Polina Zherebtsova’s Тонкая серебристая нить (Thin Silver Thread) is a collection of stories about civilian life in Grozny during the Chechen Wars. Brief extracts from Zherebtsova’s diary (NB: this is a different book!).
  • Kirill Kobrins Шерлок Холмс и рождение современности. Деньги, девушки, денди Викторианской Эпохи (Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of Modernity. Money, Young Women, and Dandies of the Victorian Epoch) is nonfiction that the title and this excerpt explain.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (excerpt) (Kaleidoscope) involves dozens of characters and their stories, set in the twentieth century; one of my Goodreads friends noted sex and vampires. This one sounded interesting from the start but for some reason hearing it described—in a positive way, mind you—as “Pynchon lite” more than once in Moscow intrigues me all the more.
  • Vladimir Martynov’s Книга Перемен (The Book of Changes) is described as more of a palimpsest than a book and as a sort of hypertext for hyperreading that uses zapping and (appropriately enough, I suppose) fortune telling practices from that other The Book of Changes. I was an I Ching fan as a teenager and don’t want to sound dismissive but, hmm.
  • Aleksandra Petrova’s Аппендикс (excerpt) (The Appendix, in a metaphorical sense, it seems) is a novel about Rome. (A review)
  • Moshe Shanin’s Левоплоссковские. Правоплоссковские (The title refer to residents of the villages of Levoplosskaya and Pravoplosskaya) is a collection of stories written by a young writer—he was a Debut winner for short fiction in 2014—from Severodvinsk, which interests me from the start because of my many visits to Arkhangelsk.
  • Vladimir Voinovich’s Малиновый пеликан (excerpt) (The Raspberry Pelican, perhaps referring to the bird’s color, based on the cover…) is more Voinovich satire with absurdity.
  • Dmitrii Lipskerov’s О нем и о бабочках (expert from GQ) (Lipskerov reads from the book on YouTube) (About Him and About Butterflies/Moths/Bow Ties, I’m betting on the lepidoptera, based on a reader review and other factors…) seems to be about a man who loses, ahem, intimate anatomy. The GQ excerpt intro compares it to Gogol’s “The Nose,” one of my all-time favorites, and it’s obvious why, even just skimming the excerpt.
  • Igor Sakhnovsky’s Свобода по умолчанию (Freedom by Default) is apparently a novel about love, internal freedom, and political absurdity.
  • Vasilii Avchenko’s Кристалл в прозрачной оправе (Crystal in a Transparent Frame) carries the subtitle “lyrical lectures about water and stones,” and Avchenko is said to cover many aspects of life in Vladivostok, including fish(ing), as in this excerpt. Ocean lover that I am, I bought this one after it hit the 2016 NatsBest shortlist.
  • Aleksei Zikmund’s Карело-финский дневник (Karelian-Finnish Diary) is a bit of a mystery…
  • Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Тимошина проза (Timosha’s Prose), which I read and don’t quite know how to describe… it’s a detached but close narrative about a young man. The novel lacks the, hmm, snap and pop (and crackle, too, I suppose) of Zaionchkovsky’s previous books.
  • Boris Lego’s Сумеречные рассказы (Dusky Stories) is a collection of nineteen Russian gothic stories; a cover blurb calls it the scariest book of the year…
  • Sergei Lebedev’s Люди августа (People of August, click through for synopsis and excerpt) is also on the 2016 Booker shortlist.
  • Andrei Sharys Дунай. Река империй (The Dunai. River of Empires, okay fine, The Danube…) has a lovely cover (I like old maps) and looks at history and the Danube over three millennia.
  • Ivan Shipnigov’s Нефть, метель и другие веселые боги (Oil, Blizzard, and Other Cheerful Gods) is a collection of stories in which, according to the publisher, oil is the most cheerful of the Gods or gods, I’m not sure which, particularly since the publisher also compares Shipnigov’s prose to the young Pelevin’s. Here’s a sample story from the collection.

Up Next: Trip reports (Moscow and Oakland), the afore-mentioned Zaionchkovsky book and Alexander Snegirev’s patient Faith/Vera, more award news, and other Big Book finalists, though this second half of the list brings me little joy and much left unfinished…

Disclaimers and disclosures. The usual, plus translating that Vodolazkin book and the fact of support for my translation work from Prokhorov Foundation grants.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Happy Birthday to the Bookshelf: Nine Years

Well, there are no cupcakes in the house again this year but at least I have tea and Russian chocolates! I’ll readily admit I’m especially sleepy this October 16, though it’s a nice kind of sleepy: a combination of residual happy tiredness after last week’s return from the American Literary Translators Association conference in Oakland and a wonderfully dreary (if only very intermittently) fall day that would seem to be crying out “You need a nap!” even if I didn’t need a nap.

All that aside, thank you to everyone who reads the blog, whether you visit regularly or only occasionally. It’s gratifying that so many people find it helpful for personal and work-related reasons. Thank you for stopping by!

Not much has changed since last year’s birthday post: work is still super-busy, I’m again translating Eugene Vodolazkin (this time his Aviator), and I’m thrilled to be working on Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (previous post), too. I’m also excited about my translations that were released this year: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina and 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, an anthology edited by Boris Dralyuk, for which I translated, “The Blue Banner,” a story by Mikhail Prishvin. Recent travel to Moscow and Oakland (trip reports coming soon!) were great fun, too, and I love my work as much as last year, if not more.

I mentioned last year that I got the impression that stereotypes about Russian fiction seemed to be easing a bit, away from thinking everything is way too intensely Heavy, Deep, and Real (to borrow a phrase from a beloved college housemate) for true enjoyment to realizing there is plenty of Russian literature available in translations that might offer, say, some deep thoughts, real settings, and heavy enjoyment. I know I’m not imagining this: lots of people ask questions when I tell them what I do, and I was especially happy to tell an Oakland TSA agent—who greeted me with a cheery «привет» when I told him I translate from the Russian—where to find the blog. The great variety of books being translated these days—you can check the new translation lists by clicking on the sidebar—means there’s something for just about any reader. And I can’t wait to get started on the stack of books I brought back from Moscow: there are lots written by writers I’ve never read so I’m looking forward to seeing what else I might like to recommend to publishers.

On to blog stats! I will repeat, yet again, an old line: “Google Analytics provides fewer interesting data about searches these days but there’s still plenty about geography and popular posts.” Here’s a bit:

Geography. As before, the United States is way out front in terms of sessions, followed by the United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, and Australia. Among the top ten, though, readers from The Netherlands (at number nine) read the most pages: 2.42 per session. Visitors from the Netherlands also spend the most time (2 minutes, 38 seconds) per session, and Russia is in second place, followed by Australia. The top city is (not set), which further confirms the tendency toward suppressing personal data, followed by New York, London, Moscow, and Melbourne. It’s nice to see places like Vilnius, Oxford, and New Delhi rounding out the top ten.

Popular Posts. The most popular landing page again this year, after the home page, is Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers, followed by Back to Classics: Turgenev and the Generation Gap (this makes me happy since I love Fathers and Sons!) and Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” a perennial favorite. I’m glad my new translation lists for 2014 and 2016 are also in the top ten; I’m not sure why there’s less interest in the 2015 list, which includes lots of good contemporary fiction. The only post about contemporary fiction in this year’s top ten list is my post about Vodolazkin’s Laurus. That makes me happy, too.

Common and Odd Search Terms. This category is pretty much a total bust again this year, with (not provided), (not set), and spammy stuff taking up six of the top ten slots. The top real search terms are generation gap in fathers and sons, lazarus Vodolazkin [oops, somebody’s mixing metaphors there!], and maksim osipov. There are better terms later, things like “russian sadism,” i love narine [this must be Abgaryan!], and russian book very simple. Someone apparently even wants to know when one of my colleagues (I won’t mention the name, so as not to cause stress!) will finish a translation… but there’s little of the wonderfully crazy stuff of years past.

And so, another slightly sleepy but very, very heartfelt thanks for your visits, comments, notes, and interest in Russian literature. I’ll see you again soon for more trip reports and book reports. Thank you again for your visits and for your interest in Russian literature!

Up Next. Trip reports on Moscow (Translator Kongress) and Oakland (ALTA conference), plus Alexander Snegirev’s Faith and Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Timosha’s Prose, as well as more Big Book finalists. Also: some Russia-related books written in English.

Cupcake credit. nazreth, via stock.xchng, for the cupcake.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Russian Booker Prize Finalists for 2016

The Russian Booker Prize announced its six-book shortlist today. The winners—of both the regular prize and the English-language translation prize—will be announced on December 1. Here, very quickly, are the finalists, in Russian alphabetical author order:
  • Pyotr Aleshkovsky for Крепость (The Citadel), which is also a Big Book Award finalist. It’s waiting patiently on the shelf for me.
  • Sukhbat Aflatuni for Поклонение волхвов (The Adoration of the Magi), which is also a Yasnaya Polyana Award finalist.
  • Sergei Lebedev for Люди августа (People of August).
  • Alexander Melikhov for И нет им воздаяния (They Get No Recompense/No Recompense for Them were my title translation guesses when this book made the Booker long list in 2012, hmm, how did that happen? I knew there was something familiar about this title…).
  • Boris Minaev for his two-book Мягкая ткань: Батист (part 1) (part 2) (Batiste) and Сукно (Broadcloth or something similar, a heavyish fabric, often woolen). This one’s a Yasnaya Polyana finalist, too, and it’s also on my shelf.
  • Leonid Yuzefovich for Зимняя дорога (The Winter Road), which already won the National Bestseller Award and made the short lists for the Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana Awards, too. This “documentary novel” about the Civil War is very absorbing.

Up Next: Moscow trip report. American Literary Translators Association conference trip report. Alexander Snegirev’s Vera/Faith and Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Timosha’s Prose.

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve received copies, in various formats, of several titles on this list.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Big Book Five: Sasha Filipenko’s Hounding

Sasha Filipenko’s Травля, which I think I’ll call Hounding in English, is one of the shortest Big Book finalists for 2016, but this fast-moving, densely packed novel makes a fairly big impression. Filipenko, who has also written for Russian TV, manages to pack a lot into around 190 pages with a story that involves, among other things, strong themes of socio-economic resentment and politically motivated hounding.

I’ll start by jumping a bit into the book, at the point where one Lev Smyslov (surname rooted in sense/meaning) goes to see his much-younger brother Mark, a cellist who’s in Switzerland for a concert that he’s scheduled to perform in several hours. Lev has told Mark he has to make the visit at that particular time because he’ll be gone the next day. (Of course this raises worries of suicide…) Lev tells first of his shame at their father’s fall from financial grace because of the 1998 default, which forced the family to move to a part of St. Petersburg that Lev doesn’t like: it’s noisy, there’s bullying in the new school, he steals nice clothes from old friends when he goes to visit, and neighbors deal drugs in their kitchen. I’ll fast-forward a few years, to when the ties Lev made in that building bring him back in contact with his neighbor Kalo, who’s from the family that dealt drugs. They work on a project for another former neighbor, Vladimir Slavin (surname rooted in glory/fame), who’s now involved in politics, very rich, and very unhappy with articles by journalist Anton Pyatyi (surname meaning “fifth,” which reminds of “the fifth column”) that have forced Slavin to recall his family from Europe (oh, the shame!). And so Slavin hires Kalo and Lev to hound Pyatyi.

Though Filipenko includes scenes of Slavin’s family members—his son Sasha, who’s a soccer player who happens to be gay, is most memorable—and Pyatyi’s family life, the bulk of the novel covers the hounding itself. I’m not sure if page count would back that up but, for this reader at any rate, most of the novel’s suspense and emotion certainly lie there, as Kalo and Lev gradually ratchet up the pressure on Pyatyi, his wife, and their baby daughter. Sleep deprivation and noise are key early on but Pyatyi doesn’t give, so things inevitably move along to illicit sex.

Lots of Hounding feels familiar, almost as if it might have come from newspaper articles (troll farms, anyone?) and I wondered if Filipenko added in italicized musical terms and explanations that liken the novel to a sonata to try to make it feel artsier. Toward the beginning, for example, there’s a mention that the “hounding” motif will appear in a certain part of the melody. Though the musical notes (oops, sorry for the pun!) added a somewhat irritating instructional quality to the novel while also almost lending the feel of tragic operatic inevitability, I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention, perhaps partly because I found Filipenko’s inclusion of song lyrics from, for example, Zemfira and Nike Borzov far more convincing. In any event, they fell by my mental wayside as I turned pages because of the plot, particularly in the first half, where Lev’s personal resentment builds as public life falls apart after the default. And then there’s poor Pyatyi, who just plain wants to get some sleep.

Above the individual characters’ problems there hangs a roiling dark cloud of accursed questions about truth, media, politics, patriotism, money, access, message, privilege, nastiness, and, yes, hounding. Questions that seem to be popping up everywhere. Though the defined setting and characters in Hounding are uniquely Russian, the themes that underlie them feel depressingly universal, common, and even perhaps Propp-like. I would be thoroughly derelict in my duties if I didn’t mention that Filipenko includes numerous very funny jabs, like Mrs. Slavina founding a foundation to help the victims of plastic surgery or Sasha Slavin mentioning an over-dependence on intonation and diminutives in contemporary Russian. Though I might have appreciated slightly more psychological development of secondary characters—that despite having been informed from the very, very beginning that I was about to read chamber music—I couldn’t put this suspenseful, chatty book down.

Up Next: Booker Prize finalists, to be announced on Wednesday. Moscow trip report. American Literary Translators Association conference trip report. Alexander Snegirev’s Vera/Faith and Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Timosha’s Prose.

Disclaimers: I received an electronic copy of the book from Big Book but read it in print form.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Big Book Four: Ulitskaya’s Yakov’s Ladder

Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Лестница Якова (Yakov’s Ladder or Jacob’s Ladder, though I’ll use Ulitskaya’s agent’s title with “Yakov”) is a family saga of sorts, a novel that solidly covers four generations, with mentions of two others. One is younger and the other is older than the core four. Ulitskaya varies her form—sometimes writing almost story-like episodes about characters, sometimes including letters from her personal family archive—as she jumps back and forth in time, too, stretching from 1907 to 2011. To Ulitskaya’s great credit, she manages to structure the book so it feels like a novel and reinforces one of the book’s recurring themes: the difficulties that separations create for the family in all generations.

The book starts off promisingly, presenting four generations at once: Nora Osetskaya is introduced as the mother of an infant son, Yurik. She soon takes a call from her father, Genrikh, who’s calling to say that his mother, Marusya, has died. When Nora goes to her grandmother’s apartment, she takes a chest of family letters. (This small chest turns out to contain more than letters: there are also bedbugs that bite Nora during that first night. This earned three exclamation marks in the margin.)

There’s far too much plot in this book of more than 700 pages to write anything that resembles a meaningful plot summary but, for this reader, it’s the separations that unify the novel most successfully, thanks to how Ulitskaya incorporates the personal (e.g. the letters) and the historical and political. I should note that the Elkost literary agency’s Web site sums up the book’s examination of freedom very concisely. ***I will now include mild spoilers. The book will be published in English by FSG.*** Marusya and Yakov meet at a Rachmaninov concert—theater, dance, and music twist into a thick, thick thread in the book—and quickly become a couple, though they are separated almost as quickly when Marusya leaves Kiev for Moscow to study dance. I found their generation the most compelling in the book, perhaps because of Yakov’s combination of optimism that his relationship with Marusya can survive multiple terms of exile and the occasionally cranky (rightfully so, really) honesty he expresses in his letters. At one point he writes, “И теперь каждому ясно, кто разрушил мою семью. И таких, как мы, я вижу вокруг себя тысячи.” (Literally: “And it’s now clear to anyone who destroyed my family. And I see thousands like us around me.”) The book contains chunks of Ulitskaya’s grandfather’s personal letters and KGB file. Yakov was, for me, the most fully formed character in the novel, with his study of music, ability to find work wherever he lands, and attempts to hold his family together.

Nora, Yakov’s granddaughter, born in 1943, also gets a fair bit of attention, though I think her chapters lack the spark of Yakov’s. Nora marries her unusual high school boyfriend, Viktor, though they never live together and she has a closer—I’m thinking soulful here, not location, since they often go for months, even years, without any contact—relationship with Tengiz, a Georgian theater colleague she collaborates with. Yurik, too, gets plenty of ink, and he’s perhaps most notable for love of his music, where the Beatles (of course!) play a big role, along with the gift of a guitar from Tengiz. Yurik ends up in New York for part of the book, where Ulitskaya’s writing about his bohemian nineties life leans toward the essayistic and encyclopedic. She includes many details of the time and place, rather than focusing on character development that might have given me more basis for understanding Yurik’s heroin addiction.

All in all, Yakov’s Ladder certainly isn’t my favorite Ulitskaya novel—I think I’ll always prefer her Daniel Stein (previous post) and Sincerely Yours, Shurik—and she hits on many of my personal “please don’t” biases by using a fractured form (less successfully, I think, than in Daniel Stein, where she really made it work, but still effectively enough), including a real-life minor character (Solomon Mikhoels, who is a thoroughly interesting figure but…), and, as I mentioned above, background that felt superfluous. Despite all that—and its 700-plus-page physical heft—Yakov’s Ladder managed to hold my interest enough for me to finish the novel: nothing in the book felt especially new to me but I suspect it’s the familiarity of Ulitskaya’s settings, characters, and conclusions about the legacy of the past that make her books feel so easy—“easy” for me here means to comfortable to read despite some uncomfortable subject matter—to read. It’s no wonder the print run listed in my copy of Yakov’s Ladder is 100,000 copies and a translation is on the way.

Up next: Moscow trip report. Alexander Snegirev’s Faith/Vera and Oleg Zaionchkovsksky’s Timosha’s Prose: I think I’m going to write about these two in one post since there were odd similarities between them… And Sasha Filipenko’s Травля (Persecution, maybe? I’m still undecided), which is (about a quarter in) painful enjoyment, painful because of the characters’ difficulties but enjoyable because it’s strangely suspenseful and pretty lively. Unless it implodes, I suspect I’ll rate it fairly high on my Big Book ballot.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received electronic copies of the book from Ulitskaya’s literary agency, Elkost, whom I’ve known for some years now, and from the Big Book Award, where I’m a member of the jury. But I read the book in a printed edition.