Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ain’t We Got Fun?

I’m starting to think I wasn’t kidding last time when I wrote that I may be reading Maxim Kantor’s Красный свет (Red World/Light/???) until the winners of the Big Book Awards are announced in November: I’m stuck in a World War 2 scene in the middle of a chapter in almost the exact middle of the book. All because sometimes, in the course of human events, even a reader like me, someone who has probably read more chernukha (dark naturalism) over the years than is healthy, needs something a little lighter. Red Whatever isn’t exactly chernukha but it’s fairly heavy stuff: there’s a bit of satire, but that’s outweighed by the war, arrests, a Hitler accomplice, ineptness in today’s political opposition, and a general feeling of rot.

Kantor’s book is my third war-related book of this season and Alexander Ilichevsky’s The Orphics, which I liked quite a bit, isn’t exactly an upper, either, with a dacha romance gone bad that leads to some intense Russian roulette scenes. I like a lot of this dark stuff, particularly when there’s a twist, as there is in Ilichevsky’s book and as there is in the last of my war-oriented books, Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop (nicely translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker), which manages to combine extreme ghoulishness with absurdity. Which is to say my problem isn’t that I want all my reading to be lite or even light… but I’d love to find a little more balance for my poor bookshelves, which sometimes seem too loaded down with darkness and existential dread. I doubt acetaminophen would be of much practical use.

So why am I writing about this? Because I’d love to hear readers’ suggestions about books—particularly contemporary or twentieth-century fiction, though I’m open to anything—that are fun(ny) and smart. I’m not looking for a list of “feel-good” books or books that are mindlessly cheery, just some titles that don’t relentlessly focus on death, doom, destruction, and (here it is again) darkness. I’ve fielded reader questions about this a number of times over the years, too, from various angles, so am sure others will be happy (happy!) for your suggestions.

I realize the hard part is that tastes, perspectives, and perceptions vary: lots (okay, probably millions) of people love Ilf and Petrov, but I’m probably best described as “indifferent,” and I couldn’t stand the Strugatsky Brothers’ Monday Starts on Saturday. On the other hand, I’d put Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City on a list of fun books, both for Danilov’s take on language, which sometimes made me laugh out loud, and for being “very touching.” Another one: even with lots of plague, Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Laurus managed to avoid utter darkness, too, through humor and something else that’s probably best described as a form of optimism. Optimism! Danilov’s book has it, too; both these books are also Big Book finalists, something that makes me feel optimistic in other ways.

Others: I’ve enjoyed Gogol’s “Nose” many times, laughed out loud at Alexander Snegirev’s silly but sharp Vanity, and sought respite from Alexander Terekhov’s dreary, overbearing Stone Bridge in Anna Starobinets’s Sanctuary 3/9, where “I found scary fun, a nightmarish, multigenre conglomeration of human fears.” Yes, it was lots more fun reading Starobinets’s take on fears than taking two Tylenol and continuing with Terekhov. There are plenty of other writers—Dovlatov and Iskander some to mind—who also manage to combine humor with the serious stuff. And then there’s Vladimir Voinovich’s Soviet-era satire (especially The Fur Hat and Chonkin). And Valentin Kataev’s A White Sail Gleams and The Embezzlers… Yes, I have more unread Voinovich and Dovlatov and Iskander and Kataev on my shelves, but I’d love to have some new writers to try, too.

For what it’s worth, I’m now reading yet another Big Book finalist, Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, about a girl from a small city who leaves her family for Leningrad, where she finishes high school then goes to film school and becomes famous. The book has a layer of bleakness but it also has lots of nice detail, plus some stylistic elements that appeal to me. More on that later, of course. FWIW, I resolved my immediate problem (last week) by finally picking up—it took fifteen or twenty years!—Petr Boborykin’s Китай-город, an 1882 novel named for Kitai-gorod, a neighborhood in central Moscow… it’s not exactly funny but it’s oddly lively and entertaining. Boborykin loves description of clothes, food, and, particularly, goods for sale; that’s fun in small doses so I may just read little bits every now and then and continue researching some of the old vocabulary.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Ilichevsky’s The Orphics and Levental’s Masha Regina

Friday, August 9, 2013

Buida’s Thief, Spy, and Murderer

Iurii Buida’s Вор, шпион и убийца (Thief, Spy, and Murderer) feels like multiple books, in multiple ways. The description the literary journal Znamya gave the book—автобиографическая фантазия, an autobiographical fantasy—sums up a lot: over all, Thief, Spy, and Murderer sure feels like an autobiography but some passages sure feel embellished. Thief, Spy, and Murderer read so much like a fiction-nonfiction hybrid to me that I can’t quite bring myself to refer to it as a novel, as Eksmo, its publisher, does. At least neither the journal nor the book publisher labelled it a “documentary novel,” a term I’ve always found annoyingly opaque.

At least the basics are fairly easy to list. Thief, Spy, and Murder is a first-person narrative told by a male who is identified (all of once) as Buida: he’s a boy when the book begins, an adult writer when it ends. I don’t seem to remember Buida having a first name, and a search of the online version (I read the book on paper) turned up no “юр” for Юрий, Iurii, though I admit I’m extraordinarily adept at forgetting character names. Details may vary significantly but much of what happens to meta-Buida (as I’ll call the Buida in the book) echoes circumstances and events in the life of the writer named Iurii Buida, including being from the Kaliningrad area, practicing journalism, and becoming a writer.
I’m not much interested in which bits of Thief, Spy, and Murderer are autobiographical and which are invented, though: as usual, I’m just looking for a book that has a functional internal logic, is written with some semblance of style, and offers enough “new information” (to borrow a term from a bass player I once knew) to keep me interested. No, I’m not sure what most of that means, in empirical and definable terms. In practical terms, though, I can say that Thief, Spy, and Murderer was a mixed reading experience, probably because of what I perceive as its mixed genre: the first half, which read more like fiction, made for easy, fairly interesting reading during a lazy, hot, and extra-long Fourth of July weekend, though the second half, which read more like autobiography, was less interesting, reading rather like a rushed summary of meta-Buida’s adult life and career. I’ll focus on the first half, which I thought was far stronger.

Thief, Spy, and Murderer begins with meta-Buida’s family getting up in the morning and preparing to go out for a Revolution Day demonstration. The narrator first describes the order in which the family uses the slop pail, then shows us his mother in curlers and his father shaving and putting on his medals. We’re in the post-War years. As neighbors begin to appear, so do stories, like the woman whose daughters came “from the elder bushes” that grow in the ruins of buildings. And then banners and a smell (Red Moscow perfume makes yet another literary appearance) and toasts... There’s an earthiness, a bit of an edge, and a real sense of seaminess.

There are lots of other promising bits in the beginning of the book: railroad tracks that raised my expectations for a Don Domino-esque book, some sordid and lonely crime, and the narrator’s father preventing a group of men from hurting a gypsy child. I think my favorite passage involved a trip to the paper mill where meta-Buida’s father works: they look inside a train car loaded with books by Stalin, all waiting to be pulped. There are sixteen tons of Stalin in each car; hundreds of cars are lined up, if only in the distance. The father gives permission to begin work on the books, allowing them to be unloaded, pitchforked into the pulper, and then piped to a cardboard-making machine. Yikes. Vodka is consumed. Then a bit later: “Когда зачистили четвертый вагон, отец взял меня за руку, и мы пошли домой.” (“After they’d cleared out the fourth car, my father took me by the hand and we went home.”)

On the next page, meta-Buida says his first experience with the writings of Solzhenitsyn is through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which fails to make much of an impression because “Когда я его читал, мне все-все казалось знакомым—не в деталях, конечно, а сама атмосфера, воздух.” (“Everything, everything, felt familiar to me when I read it: not the details, of course, but the very atmosphere, the air.”) It’s the life and the worst aspects of everydayness that feel familiar to him—and scarier than the statistics of the Gulag—and it is all steeped in Stalin.

That mention of Solzhenitsyn is key to the book, I think because, for my taste, anyway, Buida is at his best in Thief, Spy, and Murderer when he addresses those everyday horrors: the book feels most elemental and smartest then, too, particularly because many of these scenes have the surreal or mythical touches I enjoyed so much in Don Domino and Blue Blood. As for the second half. I didn’t consider abandoning the book but, with its descriptions of early writing, marriage, a journalism career, and then becoming a Communist Party worker, this chunk of the book felt more like it could be, well, safe, straightforward autobiography. Of course this stage of life is different but I missed the energy and vivid imagination that Buida drew on in the first half of the book. (Again, I don’t know what’s “true” and what’s not.) In summary: Despite enjoying much of Thief, Spy, and Murderer, I was disappointed that the book doesn’t feel quite as seamless as it might have.

I should mention that Thief, Spy, and Murderer is a finalist for the 2013 Big Book Award. And that all the finalists for the Big Book are online, free for the reading on BookMate, here. The current reader leaders for Facebook “likes” are, as of August 9: Maya Kucherskaya’s Auntie Motya/Minna, Sergei Belyakov’s Gumilev, Son of Gumilev, and Maxim Kantor’s Red Light/World (it may all be red but I haven’t yet decided). I’m reading Kantor’s book now—and though I’m enjoying it, often very much, it’s big enough and bumpy enough that I may be reading it until the award is made in November—and intend to give Belyakov’s book a try soon, too. Alas, I couldn’t quite get into Kucherskaya’s.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Alexander Ilichevsky’s The Orphics, which still gives me shivers more than a month later and not just because of the Red Moscow perfume... and, one of these days, Kantor.