Sunday, February 19, 2017

Here I Am to Brighten Your Day! Darkest Russian Literature

I felt a little jolt last week when I read this tweet from The New York Times Book Review:

I knew—just knew—that “darkest novel” in George Saunders’s reading life had to be Russian. And I was right: the book is Russian. But I was wrong about the title: the book he mentions is Lev Tolstoy’s Resurrection, about which he says, “Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” might be the darkest novel I’ve ever read — basically, a slow descent down from privilege and power into the terror and cruelty that comes of poverty and ritual oppression. (I know, it sounds bleak but. . . .)”

I’d say that sums up Resurrection pretty well; I, too, remember it as dark for those same reasons. I read Resurrection in my years before the blog and recommended it in a “forgotten classics” workshop, noting some stylistic differences and common themes with both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, though now, years later, I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what those were…

Saunders hits [sic? is this how it works?] a trifecta for Russian literature in this week’s “By the Book” for the Book Review: he also mentions the narrator of Isaac Babel’s story “In the Basement” as a favorite character and notes that he’s planning to read Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys; the book’s 1992 translation, by Julia and Robin Whitby, was recently reissued by Norton.

On a related note, Babel receives more attention in this interview for Forward, in which Aviya Kushner asks Peter Orner about, as she puts it in her introduction, “how to read in the age of Donald Trump, why Isaac Babel matters so much, and other questions about the connection between literature and survival.” This is about my hundredth reminder that I need to (re)read more Babel, something I’ve been remiss about for, well, decades. Orner, by the way, specifically cites Walter Morrison’s translations of Babel.

But back to the darkest Russian novels ever written… Which novel did I think would be Saunders’s darkest? My second choice was good old F.M. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which gave me unthinkable nightmares after I read the murder scene at bedtime not so long ago. (Do not read that scene just before bed. Please.) Claustrophobia alone would be enough to qualify C&P as dark but that murder scene is brutal. My first guess, though, was Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovyov Family (here’s the New York Review Books page on Natalie Duddington’s translation, complete with blurbs), which I also recommended in that forgotten classics workshop. I didn’t mention claustrophobia in this summary for handouts, but I felt it, intensely, in this book, too. Here’s what I wrote:
Ouch! This is the ultimate book about dysfunctional families. I have to admit that I found it difficult to read at times, both because of obsolete language and the absolute horridness of the characters. But I’m glad that I stuck with this book that Dmitrii Mirskii, an historian of Russian literature, called “the gloomiest in all Russian literature,” particularly because S-Shch has such a knack for showing the way things really were. The rottenness of the gentry is stunning, and I found the ending almost unbearably depressing. Still, I recommend it.
Those books are pretty dark but I think my very darkest book ever would have to be Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs (previous post), which is chernukha—a Russian word for what I’ll just call pitch-black realism—to end all chernukha. It’s unbearably sad and I used “ouch” in that blog post, too. But I loved that book because it’s so suspenseful and so well-composed as it describes a failing family; I’m not surprised at how much praise I’ve heard for The Yeltyshevs from other Russian writers.

Another big contemporary favorite that’s very dark: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s The Devil’s Wheel (Чертово колесо in Russian), which examines heroin addiction and corrupt cops in Tbilisi. Gigolashvili includes lots of dark (of course) humor, plus action, making nearly 800 pages fly by as if they were 80. This book has stuck with me very well since I wrote about it in 2010.

I could add lots more gloomy books to the list but will stop there. Other dark suggestions will, of course, brighten the coming days!

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve translated a bit of Senchin, including excerpts of The Yeltyshevs. Aviya Kushner is a beloved friend and colleague.

Up Next: A combo post about Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, which will include thoughts about the book and Goldberg’s upcoming appearance at a local bookstore. Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I finally finished the other night after slowing down to a glacial reading pace: I think my subconscious just didn’t want me to finish. I suspect part of what I love so much about Kaleidoscope is its combination of dark and light. Eventually: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi¸ which friends brought back from Moscow for me: they both read and enjoyed it before passing it along. This is another brick of a book (700-plus pages) so there may be more potpourri posts in Lizok’s future…

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The 2017 National Bestseller Award Longlist

This year’s National Bestseller Award longlist was announced last week and, as always, it’s fun to look through the list and see who nominated what. This year, 56 nominators nominated a total of 54 books. (I think I counted correctly… this isn’t so difficult, but I do have occasional trouble with these matters…) With so many books, it would be tough to list even half of them, so I’ll pick out a few that sound particularly interesting (to me) and add some titles by authors I’m not familiar with, focusing on books available in printed book form. The last category—which I could rephrase as “discovering new authors”—is, by the way, something Vadim Levental, the prize’s secretary, mentions in his commentary about the list: essentially, NatsBest wants to help readers navigate a sea of books. As always with NatsBest, I’m very much looking forward to reading reviews of the longlisted books. I’ve always enjoyed them because they’re so varied, individual, and informative. Best of all, NatsBest’s new site makes it far easier to find reviews quickly. The shortlist will be announced on April 14; the award ceremony will be held on June 3.

Two books were nominated twice:
  • Dmitrii Novikov’s Голомяное пламя (hmm, the first word is an adjectival form of “голомя,” a Pomor word that means open sea or distant sea… so maybe something like Flame Out at Sea or Flame Over the Open Sea…), which I’ve seen recommended several times already this year, is a book I have a special interest in because Novikov is from Petrozavodsk and writes about the Russian north. Nominated by Natalia Babintseva and Andrei Rudalev.
  • Aleksandr Brener’s Жития убиенных художников (Life Stories [as in lives, in the context of “lives of saints”] of Slain Artists) was nominated by Lyubov Belyatskaya and Ilya Danishevsky. According to the publisher, Hylaea, the book is composed of brief stories/chapters about Brener’s experiences in various places around the world, looking at people, meetings, attachments, impressions… A review by Aleksandr Chantsev makes it sound far more promising!

Books I’m already looking forward to:
  • Anna Babiashkina’s Прежде чем сдохнуть (Before I Croak) has already been translated, by Muireann Maguire for Glas, so it’s easy to leave the description to reviewers Phoebe Taplin and Michael Orthofer. The Russian book is on my shelf; the English version is on my computer, thanks to the author. Nominated by Anna Kozlova.
  • Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland) is a collection of short stories by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed reading in the past; the book was nominated by editor Yulia Kachalkina of Ripol Klassik, which has other books on the longlist. As Levental’s commentary notes, Kachalkina and Elena Shubina—whose imprint for AST have won many awards in recent years and who nominated Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot) for the NatsBest,—both have many nominees on the NatsBest longlist this year.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret Year, though I suspect this is “secret” with a good dose of mysteriousness…) is set during the time of Ivan the Terrible and was nominated by Evgenii Vodolazkin. I’ve enjoyed two of Gigolashvili’s previous books so am looking forward to this one.
  • Figl’-Migl’s Эта страна (This Country), nominated by Pavel Krusanov, is a book I want to know nothing about: it’s enough for me to know that it concerns political prisoners from the early Soviet period. I’ve been waiting for it! F-M won the NatsBest a few years ago.

I could add another five to ten more titles that I’m already interested in for various and sundry reasons—many are by authors I’ve read before and enjoyed, like Eltang, Ivanov, and Remizov—but will just skip to a few authors who are completely new to me:
  • Lyubov Mul’menko’s book, nominated by Konstantin Shavlovsky, was easy to pick because of its title—Веселые истории о панике (Cheery Stories about Panic)—and though the two current reader reviews on aren’t exactly ecstatic, they mention downsides like postmodernism and feeling they have nothing in common with Mul’menko’s view of life. Those are factors I don’t usually consider negatives.
  • Vladimir Sotnikov’s Улыбка Эммы (Emma’s Smile) was nominated by Maksim Amelin, who sees the novel as a potential intellectual (he also uses the word “existential) bestseller: it’s about a father and son, and covers aspects of Russian history from the 1920s through the 1980s, and is set in several Former Soviet Republics.
  • Moshe Shanin’s Места не столь населенные (hmm, literally something like Places Not So Populated, but I have a strong hunch this title plays on the idiom “места не столь отдаленные,” for which my Lubenskaya phraseology dictionary offers up “(a place of) exile ,” though it can also be used as a term for prison. An article on this interesting idiom.) was nominated by critic Valeria Pustovaya, who calls the book post-village literature. Places contains stories set in the Arkhangel’sk region so there’s my Northern connection again: I’ve visited Arkhangelsk, though only the city, quite a few times.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Also: I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina and know some of the nominators for this year’s award. It’s been a busy weekend so my proofreading abilities are not very strong!

Up Next: Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, covering my thoughts on the book, which I recommend highly, and (if the weather forecast is wrong and there’s no snow…) his upcoming visit to Portland for the launch of book’s paperback edition. Also: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I’m still loving and still making good progress on… This is shaping up to be a year of very long books.