Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Russian Library in West Hollywood

I fell across an article in today's Los Angeles Times about a Russian-language library in West Hollywood, consisting of 20,000 books donated by emigres over the past 10 years. The library is currently housed in the community center of West Hollywood's Plummer Park (misspelled by the LA Times), at 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood 90046. According to the Times, the library is open from 11am to 1:30 pm on weekdays. I'll try to get over there on Monday. Until then, here is a 1999 article about LA's Russian community.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

There Are Jews in My House review

Boris Fishman (see earlier post) reviews There Are Jews in My House by Lara Vapnyar in The New York Times:
In chaste, almost artless prose, she conjures up the inchoate lives of children grappling to make sense of the adults all around them.
Vapnyar, who was born in 1971 and emigrated to the United States in 1994, draws an indelible portrait of the land she left behind...Here is the Soviet Union as only its citizens knew it -- a junkyard of truncated aspirations, moral degradation, despair and inexplicable resilience, a place at once labyrinthine and explicit, dysfunctional and yet determined to survive.
This is Vapnyar's first story collection; I remember reading one of them, the humorous ''Love Lessons -- Mondays, 9 A.M.,'' in The New Yorker a while back.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Bookforum on Malevich

There is an article by Yve-Alain Bois in the winter issue of Bookforum about the expanding field of Malevich studies. Topics range from art market gossip (lawsuits, art laundering) to new discoveries and theories. Art historians are beginning to let go of the myths of Malevich and the Black Square, and look again, critically, at the dates paintings were done (versus what dates Malevich assigned them) and their multi-layered surfaces.

The issue also includes another article on Victor Serge. (See our previous post.)

Monday, December 15, 2003

LRB on The Dagaev Affair

The current issue of the London Review of Books has a review of The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia by Richard Pipes entitled "Raskolnikov into Pnin." It sounds interesting, but the article is only available online to subscribers. I guess I'll have to find a print copy.
Review of Shklovsky

A review in Bookslut of Viktor Shklovsky's Third Factory and the essay by Richard Sheldon that precedes the English translation.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Boris Fishman interviews

There is an interview with Boris Fishman (editor of Wild East, an anthology of recent writing located in Eastern Europe) in The Morning News. Over the past few years books about Americans in post-Soviet Eastern Europe became a very visable trend, and many of the fad's most notable authors are collected here (such as Arthur Phillips [Prague], Gary Shteyngart [The Russian Debutante's Handbook], Aleksandar Hemon [Nowhere Man] and John Beckman [The Winter Zoo]) Most of the included authors write in English, but the collection also includes Vladimir Sorokin and Miljenko Jergovic in translation.

There is another Fishman interview here.
St. Petersburm museums

Four St. Petersburg house-museums--Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Nabakov and Akhmatova--described in overly flowery language in The New York Times.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Literary Spokesmen

There is an interesting essay about the lack of a literary spokesperson for generation Y on . Novelist Caren Lissner writes that previous generations had literary voices that represented them, "But Generation Y, the teens and early twenty–somethings who are said to represent the biggest chunk of pop culture marketing power, have no one who has encapsulated their generation in their writing so far." She puts forth a few names of gen Y writers, of which I have read only Jonathan Safran Foer, and says that none has emerged as a spokesperson. Lissner concludes that this may be a good thing and that it is probably too early anyways.

While I am interested to see what writers develop out of our generation (I'm 24), I'm not surprised there is no "literary spokesperson." First of all, I'm not really sure generation Y is a real generation distinct from Gen X. After all, our parents aren't in Gen X. They are Baby Boomers, for the most part. Second of all: yes, it is way too early to expect, or even debate a literary spokesperson of "teenagers or early twenty-somethings."
The Imperial Sublime

I spent some time in the Georgetown University library this evening reading the introduction to The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire by Harsha Ram. Ram is a Slavic professor at UC Berkeley (I took one of his classes during my last semester there). The Imperial Sublime, published this fall, is about the simultaneous expansion of the Russian empire and the development of Russian poetry, and their influence on each other--how the poetry, (mostly) celebrated the growth of the empire and helped to create heroic myths about it. The book covers the period from when Peter I (Peter the Great) declared himself Emperor (1721) to the death of the poet Lermontov (1841).

I found what I read of the book very accessible, although much of the literary-philosophical debate about the "sublime" went over my head.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin's The Winter Queen is among thousands on The New York Times notable fiction list for 2003. It was translated from the Russian title Azazel by Andrew Bromfield, who has translated at least one other Akunin book and a ton of Pelevin.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Russian Booker announcement

Yesterday the Open Russia-sponsored Russian Booker prize was awarded to Ruben David Gonsales Galiego for his memoir Beloe Na Chernom. Galiego was born in Spain to a Spanish mother and a Venezuelan father. His maternal grandfather was general-secretary of the Spanish communist party. From what I can gather, Galiego was taken from his mother when he was born (she was told he died), and raised in Soviet asylums for palsied children. As an adult he was reunited with his mother in Spain. Beloe Na Chernom (literally, White on Black) is his memoir.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Chechnya non-fiction

Another non-fiction review: Oleg Gordievsky in the Telegraph reviews The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire by Khassan Baiev and A Small Corner of Hell by Anna Politkovskaya. These are two books about the war in Chechnya, an extremely violent and disturbing conflict that has been largely ignored by Europe, the United States and the UN. The first book is by a surgeon in the region who has treated both Russians and Chechens caught in the violence. The second book is a compilation of reports by a brave journalist for one of Russia's few independent newspapers.
Today I stopped into the Kovcheg Russian bookstore on Sunset Blvd. in the Russian neighborhood in West Hollywood. The storekeeper was helpful and friendly. I didn't buy anything of note.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Christopher Hitchens on Victor Serge

Flying across the country today I caught up on some magazine reading, including the December issue of the Atlantic, in which I found an article by Christopher Hitchens about Victor Serge, a Bolshevik who wrote anti-Stalinist works. (Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev has just been reissued by NYRB, with an introduction by Susan Sontag.) Hitchens explains that Serge was born Victor Kibalchich in Belgium in 1890, and, after political disapointments in France and Spain, moved to Petersburg (Petrograd) just in time to participate in the Revolution. Although Serge lived in Russia after the revolution, he wrote in French and published abroad, allowing him a degree of freedom unavailable to other Soviet writers. Among other things, Serge is credited with coining the word "totalitarian" to describe the common traits of Stalinism and Nazism. He did not escape punishment, however, and was kicked out of the Party and later expelled from the Soviet Union. Many of his books, including The Case of Comrade Tulayev , were published after leaving the Soviet Union. Hitchens champions Serge as a political and historical figure who doesn't lose sight of what the Revolution was supposed to be about (For more on Serge's place in Russian and French literature, see this Richard Greeman essay.)

Victor Serge's other books include Memoirs of a Revolutionary, and Midnight in the Century. Hitchens also mentions a biography, The Course is Set on Hope , by Susan Weissman (another Hitchens review).

Sunday, November 16, 2003

In today's New York Times Book Review, John Leonard reviews T. J. Binyon's biography of Aleksandr Pushkin. Leonard calls Pushkin "magnificent" and says Binyon, "a lecturer in Russian literature at Oxford, a senior research fellow at Wadham College and the author of a history of detective fiction as well as mystery novels of his own,...has practically inhaled all of 19th-century Russian culture, from school curricula to court etiquette to book publishing to adultery." This leads to many "beguiling," but to Leonard welcome, digressions. Pushkin didn't just sit around writing. He partied and dueled and slept around. He fell into and out of the Tsar's favor. He befriended and inspired revolutionaries, and then his "Byronic sympathy for Greek independence somehow metastasized into imperial bloodlust." Judging from the review this is a fascinating biography of a fascinating (and in terms of Russian letters, unequaled) writer.

This book is going onto my wish list.

Friday, November 14, 2003

I've added a perma link to the official (Russian) website for the Russian Booker, sponsored by Open Russia. The prize, also known as the "Little Booker" has been the premier literary prize in Russia since it was introduced in 1991. (At that time it was the first such prize not sponsored by the government, since 1917). The final winner will be announced December 4. The shortlist, announced last month, consists of six novels by little-known authors (in my own pidgin-transliteration):
Villa Reno by Natalia Galkina (Neva, 2003)
Beloe Na Chernom (White on Black) by Ruben David Gonsales Galiego (Limbus Press, 2002)
Iupiter (Jupiter) by Leonid Zorin (Znamia, 2002)
Frau Shram by Afanasii Mamedov (Druzhba Narodov, 2002)
Lavra by Elena Chizhova (Zvezda, 2002)
Kazaroza by Leonid Yuzefovich (Zebra E, 2003)

The 2001 winner, Ludmila Ulitskaya's Medea and her Children, was translated and published in 2002 in the United States by Schocken (I was underwhelmed).

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Moby Lives links to an obituary of Ukrainian writer Georgi Vladimov, who has died at the age of 72. Vladimov's first novels were published in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and, after the second book was censored, he became a dissident and eventually emigrated to Germany. His novels include Faithful Ruslan and The General and His Army.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Here is the link to the Letter from Russia article discussed below.

Another article I found interesting in CONTEXT 14 was Daniel Green's commentary Empty Rhetoric: Innovative Fiction and the American Literary Magazine, which argues that most American literary journals do not publish much experimental writing, a premise that would surprise those more familiar with the reactionary arguments of the ULA and Dale Peck. Green also argues that American literary magazines should provide a space for non-academic criticism.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

CONTEXT 14 has an in-depth article by Dmitry Golynko-Volfson that gives a survey of contemporary Russian literature.

The article discusses the flood of publications after the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of celebrity writers like Pelevin and Sorokin in the 90s, and the blossoming of a wider range of writers in the new century. The article concludes: "The arrival of the twenty-first century has been promising. Readership for serious Russian prose has grown, an award system is in place, a more democratic market has been established, and the Russian literary community has eagerly embraced these developments."

Note: The issue isn't on the CONTEXT website yet (and the print version lists a web address that doesn't seem to exist).

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Sasha Sokolov is sixty. He is the author of School for Fools. Here is a birthday note (in Russian) to Sokolov.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

I just missed the second annual Russian Film Week in New York (of course, I'm stuck here in Washington). The festival featured 13 new Russian films (all from 2002 and 2003), as well as the American-made English-language "Mail Order Bride" that sounds like a bad mix of stereotypes. Having heard little or nothing about these films and their directors, I would have been very interested in checking out the festival.

The descriptions on the website don't make the movies sound that great though.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Vijai Maheshwari writes today in Slate about the triumph of pulp in Russia, where the best selling authors are mystery writer Boris Akunin and crime novelists Aleksandra Marinina and Victor Dotsenko. With a large presence at the Frankfurt Book Fair, these writers will begin to show up here in translation.

Maheshwari sees this as a good thing because it represents a return to the tradition of Dostoevsky, and a necessary response to the chaotic, crime-filled 1990s in Russia. Maheshwari predicts an evolution to more literary and complex examples of the genre, saying Akunin represents one step in that direction:
In America, pulp fiction in the repressive '50s first exposed the sleazier side of life and thus paved the way in the '60s for more mainstream and nuanced books and films about the country's hookers, mobsters, and weirdos. The popularity of "crime literature" now leaves the road open for Russia's next generation of Norman Mailers and Hunter S. Thompsons, who have now begun to emerge in the new Russia.

I'm glad to see some interest in translating new Russian books, but I'm not sure these are the best choices.
At a used book store the other day I came across The Petty Demon by Fyodor Sologub. I didn't recognize the title, or the author, but have seen his name several times since, and so I checked the book out from the library (A different translation, by Ronald Wilks, under the title The Little Demon.

Expect a post with my thoughts on the book in a week or two. In the meantime, here is a bit about Fyodor Sologub (taken from the book jacket and the introduction by Viktor Erofeyev). He was born Fyodor Kuzmich Teternikov in St. Petersburg in 1863. He was a provincial schoolmaster and writer. The Little Demon, his "undoubted masterpiece" was written between 1892 and 1902 but not published in its entirety until 1907. He became a full-time writer in 1907, completing several more novels, short story collections and books of poetry. He was a leading Symbolist poet. After the Bolshevik revolution he was published less, and he died in 1927.

Sologob recources on the Internet:
Poetry (in Russian)

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

A few words about excerpts...

The New Yorker is my favorite magazine--has been for a long time. I am especially glad that Philip Gourevitch and Victor Erofeyev are writing for it now. But I have one major pet peeve--it probably says a lot more about me than it does about The New Yorker--which is that many of the magazine's fiction pieces are excerpts from novels but are not labeled as such.

See, one of my great faults in life is that I have never learned how to skim. And although I know, rationally, that to skim is often necessary and good, I still find it vaguely morally repugnant. Somewhat like leaving food on your plate (a sin that is currently seeing a societywide revision). It is, I suppose, a personal tick, that when I read an excerpt from a novel (or simply start to read one) I almost always feel I must read the entire book.

So I should not blame The New Yorker, but since it is not usually made clear whether a story is just a story or part of a novel, I feel tricked when I realize what I've read is "only" an excerpt. Sometimes I successfully avoid reading the excerpt until I can get the entire book--Austerlitz and You Shall Know Our Velocity come to mind. Other times, however, I don't learn until too late that I have accidentally read an excerpt. This happened with Middlesex, and again now with Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude. And then I want to check the book out of the library, but it isn't available. So now I'm reading the ubiquitous Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn to tide me over until I can get The Fortress of Solitude.

Motherless Brooklyn concerns a detective with Tourette's. In this context I can see my personal no-skimming rule for what it is--an annoying tick, but one that soothes more than annoys me. (Another such tick of mine is the need to remove every subscription request from magazines before I read them).

Saturday, October 18, 2003

After watching the first two episodes of Bortko's "Idiot" (out of ten total), I am happy to report it lives up to the hype. To see the story so faithfully rendered is a bit like rereading the book. The actors all do a great job, particularly the role of Prince Mishkin, which must be an actor's dream role, like the role of Hamlet. The epileptic prince is naive and tactless, but also sensitive, and passionate about ideas and morality.

Friday, October 17, 2003

The new four-DVD set of "The Idiot" just came in the mail, along with Nikita Mikhalkov's "Oblomov", which I've seen before. According to the Slavic department email list at UC Berkeley, the new adaptation of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" caused a sensation in Russia: "This ten-part miniseries premiered in Moscow less than six months ago and was widely acknowledged as a major event of Russian cultural life. The production, the director [Vladimir Bortko] and two leading actors were recognized with Teffi awards (the Russian equivalent of Primetime Emmy Awards)". They are screening the series in Berkeley this semester, but since I now live in DC, I decided to order it online.

The Idiot is my favorite Dostoevsky novel, perhaps because it is his most Tolstoyan work, especially the early parts of it. This series is supposed to be the most faithful to the text, including subplots usually omitted from film adaptations. This is possible, of course, because the new series is 500 minutes long. ("Oblomov," on the other hand, I remember as being altered considerably from Oblomov the book, by Ivan Goncharov.)

I can't wait to pop the first disk of "The Idiot" into my playstation.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Welcome to the brand-new Black Square web log, which will be devoted to Russian
literature, with occasional forays into other cultural pursuits.

"Black Square"

As you probably know, the name of this website refers to the revolutionary 1915 painting of a black square on a white background by the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). "Black Square" began several years of intense productivity in a geometric style Malevich termed Suprematism. This was one of the first experiments in abstract painting, and influenced art in Russia and the rest of the world.

Here is a page with a bit more about Malevich and the Black Square.

Kazimir Malevich's "Black Square" (1915)

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Recall Mania, part 2:
According to the Calif. Secretary of State, there will be between 55 and 155 candidates on the ballot. This will probably end up on Wednesday being very close to the top end of the scale. The subject is being talked to death all over the national news, often with a pretty mean angle, and focusing on the more absurd parts of the election. Of course, many people involved have invited this. The East Bay Express, for instance, a weekly I used to respect, has idiotically sponsored the canidacy of Gary Coleman as a gag. But somehow it turns into, everyone in California is crazy, and CNN is eating it up.

Darrell Issa surprised everyone by dropping out of the campaign for governor after single-handedly funding the recall. This will shut up a lot of recall opponents who have argued that Issa funded the recall just so he could run for governor himself. This will shut them up even though it is obvious he dropped out because he didn't think he could win against Schwarzenegger.

Garamendi also wisely dropped out, opening the way for Bustamante to represent the Democrats if Davis loses the recall. This although at least 22 others will run as Democrats (including Larry Flint). Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has to contend with several high profile Republicans.

I haven't seen any polls, but I think Bustamante has the best chance of winning this thing, as the only main Democrat, and a pretty popular, well-known figure.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Recall Mania!
I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger's apperance on Jay Leno tonight. He announced he is running for governor to "Pump up Sacramento" and say "Hasta La Vista, Baby" to Gray Davis. He literally said these things. This is his actual platform.

Man this recall is crazy. I wish I was still in California so I could vote. Just to see the ballot would be fun. Among the other candidates are Peter Camejo of the Green Party, Ariana Huffington, Republican state senator Tom McClintock, recall funder Darrell Issa, as well as lesser known politicians such as S. Issa (no relation to Darrell), Michael Jackson ("a satellite project manager"). Want to keep score at home?

Unfortunately, I can't participate in this historic and entertaining, and potentially tragic (Gov. Schwarzenegger?) event. So let me do some vicarious punditry. The Democrats need to run someone. Not to run a candidate seems perverse. It throws all their eggs in the "the recall will fail" basket of wishful hopes. This strategy may succeed, but even so, it only really benefits Gray Davis. Consider: If the recall fails because the Democrats ran no candidates, it may not mean the Republicans wasted tax payer money by creating a useless recall, but that the Democrats sabotaged the recall by refusing to participate. Because I'm sure there are people out there that want to vote for the recall, but also for a Democrat to replace Davis. Also, now that Schwarzenegger has said he will run, the recall is more likely to succeed. In which case, one popular Democrat could beat the numerous Republicans, who will likely split the vote (the "populist" Schwarzenegger, the experienced McClintock, the extreme Issa). It appears liutenant governor Cruz Bustamante may buck the Gray Davis pressure and run to replace him (Update- he's in). If no other serious Democrat (Loretta Sanchez, say) enters the race, that creates a likely senario in which the recall narrowly passes, but most of the anti-recall voters vote for Bustamante, and the Democrats keep the seat. Unfortunately, this may lead to another mid-term election to replace Bustamante, but I'm not sure how that would work.

Saturday is the deadline for turning in papers to run, and Wednesday is the deadline for the Calif. Secretary of State to certify the candidates. So we'll know by then at the latest how many names will be on the ballot.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

There is an editorial in the NY Times today by Dave Eggers. I have been thinking for a while about writing an article about him and how his philanthropic desires color his fiction, and how that has influenced the McSweeny's "movement". Although I think he would deny there was any McSweeny's or Eggers-led "literary movement," his modest publishing empire-magazines and books seems to me to have created a common style, and also, to an extent, a common... hmmm, I can't think of the word... inoffensiveness. I haven't worked it all through, but maybe I'll bring myself to write it one of these days.

In contrast with the Dave Eggers save the world philosophy, I've been reading Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux. It is his latest travel book, in which he travels from Cairo to the Cape. It's his first trip back to Africa since he was a peace corp. teacher in Uganda and Malawi in the 1960s. He finds that very little has changed, and was has changed has often declined. The book is wonderfully reported, and very passionate. He had envisioned the trip as a homecoming of sorts, and as often happens with such trips, he is disappointed by what he finds. The aid groups have multiplied in number, but the Africans have done little to help themselves, and Theroux decides foreign aid has done more harm than good. He contrasts the subsistence economies of the villages to the slums of the city. Theroux is repetitive on these points, and at points the book becomes a polemic--a persuasive polemic--against foreign aid groups. He makes good arguments, and many of the people he meets on his trip reinforce his theory. Theroux's disappointment grows as he travels south closer to where he had lived (where I'm reading he is in Malawi), and this sours the reader's enjoyment somewhat as well, but only somewhat, because of Theroux's humor and the details and observations he offers and the different people he meets.
I've been promising myself and others to restart this thing, and I've been meaning to, so here goes.
A lot has happened lately. Erin and I moved to Washington DC, where she is starting school at the end of August. After quitting work at the end of June we packed up and drove accross the country, stayed with Erin's aunt in Arlington for a couple weeks, and then moved into our new place near Georgetown. I'm looking for a job, but this has been kind of like a long vacation for both of us, and I've been pretty unproductive.
I've gotten into the habit of getting up late and staying up late playing video games and waiting for the A's games to finish. Following baseball games via espn's website is the worst possible way, but i don't have much motivation to go to sleep. Right now, for instance, it is 1:30am, the A's game is tied in the 10th, and I'm going to go to bed even if the game isn't over when i finish writing this. What I should really do is write until the game ends.

A couple of the not so great things about DC came to my attention again today. I had a rare job interview today, but the bus I was going to take didn't come; the next one didn't come either. The DC metro, as far as I can tell, is great. Unfortunately, we don't live very close to any metro stops, and we don't have a car anymore, so we have to rely on the buses, which it seems we can't. Erin called the DC transit phone number, and when she told them our buses hadn't come, they said there was no delay. She pointed out that from where we were sitting there was obviously a delay, or worse. But the woman on the phone said sorry, there isn't a delay.

After calling to reschedule my interview, we left to go to a jazz concert at the sculpture garden by the mall. But it started pouring--we were walking--and so we changed plans and went to see Finding Nemo. It was pretty good. I actually thought it was pretty scary--oceans freak me out.

Okay, game's over. i'll try to write tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Went to Viv and a Movie last night with my friends Yaniv and Sandy. Viv is a rock band and the movies are short, wordless movies they show in between songs. Then they have other bands play later, last night being the Punk Rock Orchestra String Quartet. Yaniv is playing there next Monday with The Longer Now. Yaniv also has some of his own music on

Sunday, April 27, 2003

I'm leaving my job at Business for Social Responsibility and moving from Berkeley to Washington D.C. in July. The plan is to find a job in journalism or politics or at a non-profit. If you know about anything, email me at mrochmes[at]
I hope to revive this space as a journal of my experiences in D.C.
Satellite is gone, but I hope to set up some kind of online archive for it. Something new is in the works. In the meantime, check out my homepage: