Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Bookshelf Turns Six... in Indiana

Sample Gates, Indiana University Bloomington
I’m forgoing the traditional cupcake for this year’s blog birthday in favor of a photo of Indiana University: that’s where I’ll be, for the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference, on October 16, the day Lizok’s Bookshelf turns six. The ALTA conference feels supremely fitting because if there’s one thing that sums up this past year, it’s a big increase in translation work. It’s also been a year for meeting many more of you, in person or virtually, and hearing more about why you read the blog. I used the words “gratifying” and “humbling” last year when I wrote about meeting blog readers and can only say that they still apply. Thank you.

Here are a few annual report statistics for the last blogyear…

Geography. The top visitor countries changed again this year: United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, and Canada, with Germany rising and Italy dropping. Top cities are New York, Moscow, London, Oxford, and “not set.” Londoners are still taking more time per visit than New Yorkers: 2:06 for London and 1:04 for New Yorkers. By country, the most leisurely readers in the top ten visiting countries are Australia (3:25) and Italy (2:27), with Austrians schussing away even faster than New Yorkers (1:02).

Common Search Terms. I’m not getting as many details about search terms these days but the most common sets are lizok’s bookshelf, lermontov hero of our time summary, best Russian literature, and Russian literature reading list. The most popular name was “boris dralyuk” followed by marina stepnova. The most popular book and story names (after hero of our time) were kuprin gambrinus, the petty demon summary, makanin underground (that’s the top contemporary book title), and salam dalgat. Paging through the statistics, I see that many, many other books turn up a lot but the search terms differ slightly—e.g. variations on Andrei Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—so the books stay low in the standings. I was very happy to see the combination of doctor zhivago rowan tree come up—a friend and I spent countless hours eating ice cream and talking about that in grad school—but I have to wonder how someone got here with the words naked russian beach.

A special note on one popular post: my piece about Vera Panova’s Seryozha, dated April 20, 2008, continues to draw readers. It makes me endlessly happy that so many readers from India have searched out the title and left comments saying how much they loved the book.

Popular Posts. Top landing pages fit with the common search terms listed above: Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature, A Hero of Our Time, Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers, The Petty Demon, and “The Overcoat.” As last year, I can’t help but see a peculiar disconnect in readers’ overwhelming interest in classics and my overwhelming interest in contemporary fiction. And as last year, it’s the discovery factor that keeps me going with contemporary novels, even if I might have to attempt five clunkers (which rarely get mentions here) before I find new favorites like Vodolazkin’s Laurus, Levental’s Masha Regina, or Sherga’s wonderful debut novel, The Underground Ship. As I type, I realize that my interest in contemporary fiction is probably the most compelling reason to read more classics since so much of what I seem to be translating is written by contemporary writers who somehow use historical settings.

Saving the Best for Last: Thank you! Finally, a thousand thanks to each of you, for visiting, reading (whether for one minute, two minutes, or more!), writing, commenting, and inquiring. I know I’m not always very quick to respond to messages but please know that I appreciate hearing from everyone, whether in person or by e-mail. I’m glad so many of you find the blog useful!

Up Next: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina. Trip report on the American Literary Translators Association conference.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

About a Boy: Zaionchkovskii’s Petrovich

Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Петрович (Petrovich) is one of those rare contemporary novels that feels almost too close to perfect, a book—like Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, which I swear I’ll be writing about next very soon—that, to build on how a friend described Masha Regina, reads well, reads well, reads well, feels like it might fade (i.e. get boring), then catches itself, and starts reading well again. I’m not sure why that feels so nearly perfect to me, though I suspect what I enjoy so much is the writers’ ability to convey ordinariness in a way that feels ordinary but yet somehow, magically, ends up feeling absolutely unordinary, beautiful, and (very often) heartbreaking. Both Petrovich and Masha Regina look far simpler than they are and both use stylistics and structures that fit beautifully with stories about people who come of age during the Soviet breakup: both books also focus on title characters’ lives in ways that reflect social and family difficulties rather than obsessing on the Big Picture, though both authors also present their characters as individuals emblematic of their times and contexts.

The title character in Petrovich starts out as a kindergartener—a stubborn and unhappy kindergartener—who feels, to paraphrase a bit, like a loner in a herd of cheerful idiots (“чужим в стаде этих жизнерадостных идоитов). The day described in the first chapter-story of Petrovich is not a good one for Petrovich: he ends up having a childish accident and needing to have his mother, whom he calls by her first name, Katya, help him wash off in the Volga on his way home. Petrovich has trouble playing with others all through the book. He gets into a fight after a boys’ room conflict because another boy speaks disrespectfully about a neighbor girl Petrovich has had a crush on for years; there are more difficulties when he’s a young adult living in Moscow.

Zaionchkosvkii structures Petrovich as what I’ve come to think of as an episodic novel and he increases the length of the chapters-episodes-stories as Petrovich gets older. Time sometimes advances quickly: it seems like Petrovich takes up smoking and spitting pretty suddenly. Then again, the use of a patronymic on its own as direct address is unusual for a child, and Petrovich is known as just Petrovich. (That said, I know a baby whose family has been referring to him as Petrovich since he was in utero…) The name feels especially fitting in the book because Zaionchkovskii’s Petrovich is both a very concrete character and a very symbolic character, named for someone (his father, of course) from the generation that came before him (of course!), starting his life in the novel with a mention of the Soviet anthem playing on the built-in radio in the morning… and ending with the same anthem, albeit in a different era and with a much different sleeping arrangement. The name Petrovich also feels fitting because it’s come to feel (and here I’ll probably get myself into big trouble) like a name for a certain down-to-earth Russian everyman.

Zaionchkovsky’s Petrovich is, in many ways, a Soviet everyboy growing into a Soviet-born everyman. Despite having a family that loves him and lets him wander quite a bit, there are themes of abandonment, orphandom (through his grandfather), and of course, broken families because Petya, the source of Petrovich’s patronymic, disappears. Times change and Petrovich enters adulthood, at least physically, but the anthem remains the same and Petrovich remains a touchy guy, particularly in group situations, where he still seems to feel like that loner in a herd of cheerful idiots.

КрАЗ-256БPetrovich’s happiest times seem to come in one-on-one situations: when his grandfather shows him old photos, when a friend of the family takes him on an overnight fishing trip that includes a scary storm, and when he rides around in a dump truck. Petrovich and I both particularly enjoyed the day in the dump truck. The truck driver sees Petrovich hanging around a construction site, offers him a ride, and even treats him to a cafeteria lunch of borsch, kotlety, and macaroni with sauce. Here’s a (purposely literal) translation of how Petrovich feels with a warm breeze in his hair:

Он испытывал в эти минуты необыкновенный подъем чувств, а попросту говоря, был счастлив, насколько может быть счастлив человек.

In those moments he experienced an uncommon burst of feelings and, put bluntly, was happy, as happy as a person could be.

I’m happy, too. Happy so many people recommended Zaionchkovskii to me over the years, happy I finally found Petrovich in book form in Moscow last year, and happy Zaionchkovskii assembled such a nice balance of characters and observation.

Up Next: Levental’s Masha Regina and a translator conference trip report…

Image credit: Andrew Butko, via Creative Commons, Wikipedia

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Yasnaya Polyana Laurels Go to Laurus

I was excited to learn (yesterday, sorry I’m a bit slow these days) that Evgenii Vodolazkin won the 2013 Yasnaya Polyana Award in the Twenty-First Century category for Лавр (Laurus), a book I enjoyed very, very much (previous post).

This year’s Childhood, Adolescence, Youth award went to Iurii Nechiporenko, for the story collection Смеяться и свистеть (To Laugh and Whistle), and Iurii Bondarev won the Modern Classic award for Батальоны просят огня (The Battalions Request Fire) and Последние залпы (The Last Salvoes), both about World War 2.

Disclaimers: I translated excerpts from Laurus. And I shamelessly borrowed the laurel pun in this post’s title from one of you.

Up Next: Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Petrovich and Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina. Also, a trip report about the American Literary Translators Association conference: I’ll be heading to Bloomington, Indiana, next week. Among other ALTA things, I’ll read from my translation of Addendum to a Photo Album, by Vladislav Otroshenko, a jury member for the Yasnaya Polyana Award.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Russian Booker Shortlist, 2013

It certainly is award season! The 2013 Russian Booker Prize shortlist was released last week: six books were chosen from a longlist of 24 books. The winner will be named on December 4 when there will also (apparently) be an announcement about a new grant for translating and publishing a Booker novel. For now, here’s the Booker’s not-so-surprising shortlist:

  • Evgeny Vodolazkin: Лавр (Laurus). Still one of my favorites; also a finalist for the Big Book, Yasnaya Polyana, and National Bestseller. (previous post)

  • Andrei Volos: Возвращение в Панджруд (excerpts) (Return to Panjrud). Volos, who is originally from Dushanbe, often writes about Central Asia. His agent’s site says this novel is about a poet in the Middle Ages. Finalist for this year’s Big Book, too.

  • Denis Gutsko: Бета-самец (Beta Male). This sounds like a novel about a middle-aged guy (not an alpha!) with good connections but not a lot of ambition who is presented with a situation that changes his life. Gutsko won the Booker in 2005.

  • Andrei Ivanov: Харбинские мотыльки (The Moths of Harbin). A novel about Russians in Estonia during 1920-1940. This sounds like a difficult but interesting novel.

  • Margarita Khemlin: Дознаватель (The Investigator). Another one I read and enjoyed (previous post). BTW, Subtropics will be publishing my translation of one of Margarita’s stories fairly soon.

  • Vladimir Shapko: У подножия необъятного мира (At the Foot/Pedestal of an/the Immense World…). This work is called a poem but isn’t written as verse, though one observer who read the first installment in a journal says “poem” fits in the Greek sense because the book is an epic set in the Soviet era and looks at a huge number of characters who are regular people. Our observer sounded rather eager for a sense of what it might all mean…

Disclaimers: The usual plus translating Khemlin and Vodolzakin.

Up Next: Yasnaya Polyana award winners (short list here). Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Petrovich and Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, both of which I liked very much: I’m starting to think I particularly appreciate books with proper names as titles, given my love of Klotsvog and The Yeltyshevs. Also, a trip report about the American Literary Translators Association conference: I’ll be heading to Bloomington, Indiana, in a little over a week.