Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Jumbled Post on Two in English: Paul Goldberg’s The Château and Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther

I don’t receive a lot of English-language books that aren’t translations from the Russian but are somehow related to Russia, Russian, or the Former Soviet Union, so this February’s new releases brought two nice surprises: Paul Goldberg’s The Château and Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther, Shelley Frisch’s translation, from the German, of Petrowskaja’s Vielleicht Esther. Goldberg’s book is frenetic fiction, a satire, based on thoroughly up-to-the-minute reality (yikes) in the United States and Petrowskaja’s book is a metaphysical (I think I can say that) sort of memoir about family. The books have some threads in common: Jewish characters/relatives born in the Former USSR and the legacies of World War 2. Each book offers lots of other elements that I think should be of interest to readers of Russian language and literature so I’ll skew my descriptions sharply in those directions since both Goldberg and Petrowskaja have stuffed so much—to good effect—into their books.

Jason Sheehan’s review of The Château for NPR covers the ups and downs of the novel’s plot and structure so perfectly that I’ll just summarize by saying that in January 2017 Bill Katzenelenbogen, who’s been freshly fired from his science reporter job at The Washington Post, goes to investigate his college roommate’s mysterious death (a fall) in Florida, where Bill stays with his fraudster/poet father, Melsor Yakovlevich Katzenelenbogen, who’s running for the board of directors of his condo building, called, yes, Château Sedan Neuve. Much of the freneticness in The Château comes from Goldberg’s language: he captures Russian émigré language beautifully, so sliding glass doors become “slice doors,” 45’s name becomes “Donal’d Tramp,” and Melsor says to Bill, “Here. Translate. I will be long time. You have pen?” It’s pitch-perfect but not snarky.

There’s a fair bit of translation in the book, too: not only does Bill translate Melsor’s chastushki about the building, but Goldberg offers dialogue in transliterated Russian with English translation, often including slang and мат (obscenities). Here’s a sample paragraph: “’A chto eto za mudak? FBR?’ asks a woman in a black bathing suit. [Who is this fuckup? FBI?]” I couldn’t resist that particular paragraph since mudak is one of my favorite Russian vulgarities; there’s a nice summary of it later in the book, too, here. The word svoloch’ (more complex) gets more ink, including derivation (!) and utterances, gathered here. Lest you think I’m specializing in insults, perhaps I can interest you in a brief discussion of verbs of motion plus many lines of and references to real literature—Mandelstam and Vysotsky appear early on, and of course there are mentions of Gogol—meaning literature Melsor didn’t write. All in all, I’d recommend The Château to Russian-obsessed readers who also have a sense of humor about life in Florida (émigré life or otherwise) and are interested in reading about how politics gets out of hand even at the condo board level. There’s a reason the word “fascism” appears on the book’s flap. In these days of news overload, I give Goldberg extra credit for keeping me interested in the very political, very current Château, which also contains extraneous plot lines and thematic threads. Sheehan is right in calling the book “bonkers.” Then again, well, “bonkers” is a perfect fit for January 2017, meaning that Goldberg picked an appropriate level of crazy. He’s something of a specialist with bonkers: in many ways, the word also fits The Yid, which I wrote about last year (previous post).

It felt strange to follow Florida and The Château with Maybe Esther—which is subtitled “A Family Story”—and travel to Europe, where Petrowskaja is in search of her family’s history, including traces of her great-grandmother, whose name might have been Esther. Maybe Esther hit me especially well because so many elements reminded me of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, which I’d been translating. Two examples: on a micro level, there’s discussion of what clothes were and weren’t taken into evacuation during World War 2 and on a macro level, there’s a sense of a war that never leaves. The war never left Petrowskaja’s grandmother, just as it never left Khemlin, who, like Petrowskaja, wasn’t even born until after the war. Petrowskaja’s travel and book prove over and over that the war hasn’t leave her untouched, either, that it’s part of her history. As she’s on her way to visit Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, she stands at a bus station waiting for bus 360 and the numeral feels appropriate because she says she’s moving in a circle. And then she sees fellow passengers with circular items: a toilet seat and life preservers. Petrowskaja makes every detail count in Maybe Esther.

Petrowskaja brings lots of humor and word play into the book and I marked a section on the Russian word organy (the organs, not just internal organs in the body but internal organs in the government, too, like the secret police) because I loved how the family discussed the organy (innards!) swallowing people up. With its blend of languages, I can only imagine how difficult Maybe Esther must have been to translate but Shelley Frisch’s translation reads beautifully and she handles Russian expressions (not just the organy) very adeptly. There’s also a fun passage with a ficus that includes lots of similar-sounding words, like fixated and fiction, and Shelley’s long sentences flow and flow, building momentum and rhythm, contrasting nicely with shorter sentences.

Dozens of small episodes and objects drew my attention: an incomplete recipe, the onset of blindness, the fuzziness of memory (of course), Petrowskaja’s great-uncle shooting a German embassy counselor in Moscow, the great-uncle’s trial, the grandfather who disappeared for decades, and the feeling of being Sisyphus. I could go on and on and on about numerous other little things so will just mention something that’s much bigger and more important because it encompasses thousands and thousands of reasons to read the book: Babi Yar and everyone who was lost and became a “maybe” like Esther. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction but I’m a sucker for narrative nonfiction where an author can tell stories, important stories, as Petrowskaja does, drawing me in and holding me from chapter to chapter with digressions, dreamily lofty observations, colorful figures, lives, historical settings, and language play, assisted here, of course by Shelley Frisch. Since I’ve only covered some favorite slivers of the lovely jumble that is Maybe Esther, here’s Linda Kinstler’s review for the Los Angeles Review of Books for more.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received review copies of both books. Thank you to HarperCollins for Maybe Esther and Picador for The Château. Special thanks to Picador for a finished copy, so I could check quotes. And read Goldberg’s acknowledgements; he’s a master of acknowledgements. I met Shelley Frisch at a translator conference.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, the Strugatsky Brothers’ Doomed City, Andrei Volos’s Shpakovsky’s Hat, a short story collection, and more books in English.