Sunday, February 24, 2013

Snowy Day (Yet Again!) Potpourri: Two News Items & Two Books

First, two brief news items...

This year’s Prix Russophonie went to Hélène Henri-Safier for her French translation of Dmitrii Bykov’s Pasternak. Henri-Safier’s translation of Pasternak also won the 2012 Read Russia award, in the contemporary literature category. Further details about the Prix Russophonie are online here. Other finalists for the prize translated Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Girshovich, and a band of OBERIU writers.

Poet, translator, and publisher Maksim Amelin won the Solzhenitsyn Prize today. Several of Amelin’s poems are included in the bilingual collection Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Evgeny Bunimovich and Jim Kates; the book is from Dalkey Archive.

Now, two brief notes on books…

Konstantin Flavitskii's not-quite-real account.

Grigorii Danilevskii’s Княжна Тараканова (Princess Tarakanova where the princess word means a prince’s unmarried daughter, oy, oy, oy!) is an 1883 historical novel about the demise of pretendress Elizaveta Tarakanova, who claimed to be the daughter of Empress Elizabeth. Danilevskii tells his version of the story in two parts: the first is the diary of naval lieutenant Pavel Kontsov, who meets Tarakanova after he escapes from an Istanbul prison; his previous adventures include serving in the Battle of Chesma in 1770. True to his time, Kontsov tells his story as a confession of sorts, mentions Kheraskov (!), and experiences perils both sentimental and maritime. Kontsov writes his diary in 1775 on a ship, The Northern Eagle, stuffing the pages into a bottle that he tosses overboard during a storm he fears will wreck the ship.

Do not fear, dear readers: the bottle and the diary are, of course, found in the second half of the book! The second section, told in a rather bland third-person narrative, also includes scenes of the captured Tarakanova in Peter and Paul Fortress and a wrapping up of various loose ends from Kontsov’s story. Catherine the Great is also present. All in all, I wouldn’t say Princess Tarakanova is great literature but it made for moderately entertaining, easy reading on tired evenings. The highlight was Danilevskii’s nineteenth-century take on the eighteenth century.

An Armenian Sketchbook is Vasily Grossman’s Добро вам, literally Good to You, in a translation from Robert and Elizabeth Chandler; I read the Chandlers’ translation. Grossman wrote An Armenian Sketchbook about his 1961 travel to Armenia, where he went to rewrite a literal Armenian-Russian translation of a novel by Hrachya Kochar. Grossman hardly writes about the work, the writer, or the translator—I’ll admit this was, initially, a disappointment for me—but I found his descriptions of and reflections on things like Armenia’s stone (“Here, we were still in the Stone Age.”), poverty, history, and trout surprisingly absorbing. In describing village life, for example, Grossman catalogues certain residents’ criminal activity and I scribbled in the margins that the passage reads like true-life чернуха, that dark naturalism I’ve mentioned so many times before.

Robert Chandler and Yuri Bit-Yunan’s very helpful introduction to An Armenian Sketchbook notes the “deeply personal” and spontaneous nature of the writing in Sketchbook and mentions that Grossman was, at the time, in the early stages of cancer, which caused him physical difficulties that are detailed in the book. Mortality is a frequent motif and in one scene, after some heavy drinking, Grossman writes, “At this point I realized that I was dying.” He describes some of these sensations—his “I,” for example, separating from his physical body, and aloneness—then, two pages later writes, “If the world were not so beautiful, the anguish of a dying man would not be so terrible, so incomparably more terrible than any other experiences.” Grossman closes Sketchbook with some lovely descriptions of a wedding that culminates, at least in Grossman’s account, in a dance with candles. Two of his last lines are, “Probably I have said much that is clumsy and wrong. But all I have said, clumsy or not, I have said with love.” I think it’s that love, along with the spontaneity that Chandler and Bit-Yunan mention in their introduction, that appealed to me so much in An Armenian Sketchbook.

Disclosures: The usual for the news items. I received a copy of An Armenian Sketchbook from the publisher, New York Review Books; I am collaborating with Robert Chandler on a story by Andrei Platonov for a collection that NYRB will publish.

Up Next: Ekaterina Sherga’s The Underground Ship, which just took an interesting turn. And maybe favorites from the letter R… we’ll see.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Blizzards: Butov’s Freedom

I started writing about Mikhail Butov’s Свобода (Freedom) last weekend, when more than 30 inches of fresh blizzard-begotten snow were still languishing outside my office window. Blizzard memories felt perfect for Freedom, a book that isn’t just a blizzard of words and ideas about aimlessness in the 1990s: Butov includes a set piece about a winter camping trip, complete with a blinding snowstorm, ill-preparedness, and references to Jack London.

Freedom, which is narrated by a nameless (I don’t think I missed a name…) first-person narrator who loses his job early in the book, is filled with metaphors for loss of direction and loss of one’s place in the world. Like several other narrators I’ve met—Makanin’s Petrovich in Underground, which lost the 1999 Russian Booker to Freedom, comes to mind—Butov’s character apartment sits for a friend. The friend has gone off to Antarctica; people go to the ends of the earth in this book. Our narrator doesn’t seem to mind being alone a lot, though he’s not strictly alone: he shares his friend’s apartment with a menagerie of mice, rats, roaches, regular flies, fruit flies (there’s a trash chute problem, something I seem to be finding a lot lately), and spiders. Only the spiders cross the threshold into the room where the narrator sleeps. The narrator feeds and even names one spider. Ursus.

I found myself surprisingly agreeable to reading about Ursus and urban solitude and solitariness: Butov’s descriptions of detachment and emotion can be very striking. In one, the hungover narrator vomits into the sink, after which,

Потом я стоял у окна, очень пустой и очень легкий, и двор, еще безлюдный ранним воскресным утром, видел сквозь сгусток внутренней своей темноты. И вдруг, прямо у меня на глазах, стал падать первый снег. Неуверенный и мелкий, как соль, он таял, едва достигал асфальта, — но брал числом, и площадка для машин перед домом медленно покрывалась белым.
Тогда я заплакал. От полноты переживания.

Then I stood at the window, very empty and very (s)light, and I saw, through a clot of my internal darkness, the yard, which was still unpopulated on an early Sunday morning. And suddenly the first snow began to fall right before my eyes. Uncertain and as fine as salt, it melted as soon as it reached the pavement, but it accumulated and the parking area in front of the building slowly whitened.
Then I began to weep. From the fullness/completeness of the feeling/experience/suffering.

I’ve purposely left the translated paragraph fairly literal, with alternate meanings and favorite Russian tics, like вдруг/suddenly. That last line reminds me of the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, particularly after the narrator’s physical emptiness...

Our narrator doesn’t spend the whole book alone, though. There are some brief scenes with an occasional female caller and he visits his mother toward the end of the book. And the anonymous narrator spends lots of time with a college friend, Andriukha, an adventurer whose self-destructive tendencies lead to problems with money, ill-gotten goods, and petty criminals. The lone narrator and Andriukha sometimes feel as antipodal as Freedom’s Antarctica and far north.

The wonder of Freedom is that it works at all: as you can probably tell, it’s lumpy and fairly plotless, and the narrator himself says toward the end that he began by stringing together some funny stories, not thinking they’d turn into an adieu to youth. And Freedom is so dense I reread enough passages that I can practically say I’ve already read the book twice. But the time and effort were more than worth it: for the first snow, for the damn spider, for the narrator’s mother’s clock collection, for a telescope in a kiosk, and for a conversation with Andriukha about death-and-will-it-happen, the conversation we’re supposed to avoid. It’s the combination of Big Things and little things that got to me. And the spontaneous powerful feelings. There’s also a globe factory. Learning about birds from matchboxes. And a reference to railroad stuff and Platonov characters, how could I not appreciate that? Finally, there’s a mention of Tunguska. This is my sixth Tunguska tag, dear readers!

Disclosures: I met Mikhail Butov in Moscow last year through Dmitrii Danilov, who pulled Freedom off a bookstore shelf and recommended it to me as a favorite. I have already thanked him.

Up Next: Grigorii Danilevskii’s Princess Tarakanova, an easy-reading historical novel and Vasily Grossman’s Armenian Sketchbook. Then Ekaterina Sherga’s The Underground Ship, which I’m enjoying. My morbid fascination with Elena Katishonok’s Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife has come to an end (it feels too goopy and dull, particularly when I have so many other books on the shelves), and I’m reading Mikhail Gigolashvili’s The Capture of Muscovy slowly: his language-based humor can be very, very funny but the book could have used some significant edits.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

More News on Awards: Belkin Short List & NatsBest Long List

The Belkin Prize, which recognizes long stories/novellas, announced its short list last week, something I somehow missed—we’ll just blame that on blizzard preparations—until I saw a post on the blog known as Заметил просто.

Almost all the Belkin finalists are new to me—the jury, led by Yury Buida, skipped over known nominees like Zakhar Prilepin and Roman Senchin—but virtual introductions are what endeared Belkin to me in the first place. Something else to like: all the nominated works are available on Журнальный зал. (Заметил просто made things easy for me by including all the links in his post.) The winner will be named during Maslenitsa in the atrium of the Pushkin Museum. If you, like me, aren’t up on your Maslenitsa calendar, it’s March 11-17 this year. Meaning it’s almost time for some bliny.

Here’s the Belkin short list in Russian alphabetical order, by surname:

Dmitrii Vereshchagin’s Заманиловка (Oh my… never a dull moment with titles. The title word, zamanilovka, was new to me: it can refer to exaggerations, often inflated advertising claims intended to lure someone in, so perhaps something like “bait and switch” or “scam” could work, depending on context. A couple of online dictionaries list it as “teaser,” though that sounds milder than the slang dictionary I checked… and the uses in the story seem, at least on first glance, to vary. Anyway, this novella begins with Stalin appearing in the narrator’s dream…)

Dmitrii Ishchenko’s Териберка (Teriberka, a geographical name, ha!, for a small town on the shore of the Barents Sea. This sounds like my kind of geographical setting.)
Irina Povolotskaia’s Пациент и Гомеопат (The Patient and the Homeopath)

Gennadii Prashkevich’s Упячка-25 (Upyachka-25… yet another quirky one! Upyachka is the name of painfully stupid Russian Web site… “upyachka” is even listed on Urban Dictionary, with two definitions.)

Vladimir Kholodov’s Шанс (Chance, I’ll go with the easiest possible translation, the path of least resistance after Upyachka.)

Meanwhile, in The Land of the National Bestseller Award, there are so many titles on the long list that I could just cherry-pick the ones that are easy to translate! I’ll mention a few… First off, it’s easy to notice that Eduard Limonov’s В Сырах (In Syry) was nominated more times than any other book. Three. Limonov, who’s pretty well-known thanks to decades of writing and rabblerousing, isn’t exactly in need of a National Bestseller award to “wake up famous.” I noticed two other writers with more than one nomination: Platon Besedin for Книга греха (The/A Book of Sin) and Olga Novikova for Каждый убивал (Each One Killed). Two books are already on my shelf: Yevgenii Vodolazkin’s Лавр (literally Laurel but known as Brother Laurus for translation purposes) and Igor Savelyev’s Терешкова летит на Марс (Tereshkova is Flying to Mars, which is coming out in Amanda Love Darragh’s translation this year, from Glas, as Mission to Mars). There are also a few writers I’ve read before: Viktor Martinovich was nominated for Сфагнум (Sphagnum, which I never realized was spelled quite this way in English, thanks, NatsBest…) and Il’ia Boiashov was nominated for Эдем (Eden). And I’ve read one story in Alexander Snegirev’s collection, Чувство вины (Guilt Feeling/Feeling of Guilt): “The Internal Enemy,” which I summed up here. Beyond those names and a few I’d heard of but never read or read very little of—e.g. Igor Sakhnovskii, Vladimir Kozlov, Anna Matveeva, and Sergei Nosov—around half the list is new to me.

For more on NatsBest: the long list, the nominator list, and commentary from NatsBest head Viktor Toporov that, among other things, notes a revenge of the complex over the simple. And a near absence of nonfiction. Yes, I’ve way oversimplified. The short list will be out on April 16 and the winner will be named on June 2.

Disclaimer: The usual.

Up Next: Mikhail Butov’s Freedom. Then Grigory Danilevsky’s Princess Tarakanova, probably together with Vasily Grossman’s Armenian Sketchbook.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

NOSE Award & Several Translation Competitions and Awards

2013 NOSE prizes were awarded yesterday: Lev Rubinshtein won the jury prize for Знаки внимания (Signs of Attention), a collection of columns from various publications and various years. Aleksei Motorov won the readers’ prize for his autobiographical novel Юные годы медбрата Паровозова (Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years). I haven’t read any of the books on the NOSE short list (previous post)… though I do intend to get to Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Захват Московии (The Capture of Muscovy) someday soon. NOSE prizes are awarded by the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation.

Meanwhile, Academia Rossica sent me a note about this year’s Rossica Young Translators Award. Full information is online here but here are key details... “Young” means you must be 24 or under on the deadline for entries, which is March 10, 2013. The three excerpts from which to choose are by Eduard Limonov, Boris Akunin, and Marina Stepnova. Chalk one up for variety! Judges are Oliver Ready, Amanda Love Darragh, and Daniel M. Jaffe. Oh, and the prize is £500.

Finally, the Institute of Translation announced that it is accepting entries for the next Read Russia translation prize, which will be awarded in 2014. Entries—this means books (translations) published by non-Russian publishers during 2012 and 2013—will be accepted throughout 2013. At the moment, there’s only information available in Russian (here) but the four categories for awards haven’t changed from last year: I listed 2012’s winners in a previous post. The Institute is also taking proposals for translation grants. There’s information online in Russian and in English. The deadline of March 31, 2013, may be extended through May 2013.

Update on the 2013Translation List. Several of you sent information on translations coming out in 2013. I have duly added them, so consider the list refreshed. I’m happy to add more: all genres are welcome to participate!

Up Next: Mikhail Butov’s Freedom, where I found a spider particularly endearing. And, at some future juncture, Elena Katishonok’s Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife, which I still don’t like. At all… though I’m reading it (albeit at a plodding pace) with an almost morbid fascination because I’m gaining a better understanding of what I don’t like in a novel. It’s a very interesting personal case study, particularly because I do see what other readers like about the book. Also: Grigorii Danilevskii’s Princess Tarakanova, a historical novel I picked up for some easy/easier reading on sleepy weeknights.

Disclosures: The usual. I collaborate with the Read Russia program, including the Institute of Translation.