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)