7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Margarita Shalina (bookseller at St. Mark’s, translator, reviewer, all around multi-talented person) on Victor Pelevin’s The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, which actually came out last year (hey, no one said we had to be timely). Here’s the opening of her review:

“What a crazy idea that was—to change the name of the KGB. One of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed!”

Pelevin has a great knack for relaying the oddities of the Russian condition in terms that almost anyone can understand. Product placement in Generation “P” revealed to the rest of the world that, yes, young people of the post-communist era did indeed choose Pepsi, or perestroika, but with the same freedom as when their parents chose Brezhnev, that is none at all. This time Pelevin’s leitmotif is the Russian folktale. In Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Pelevin has dusted off the characters of fox and wolf—stars of the traditional Russian folktales collected by Alexandr Afanas’ev in the mid nineteenth century. In Sacred Book, Pelevin has personified fox as a sex worker and wolf as an FSB agent.

In Russian folktales, fox is the perpetual trickster. In keeping with this Pelevin’s fox is a prostitute named A Hu-Li. The name itself is a profanity in Russian to match her occupation which translates to “[s]omething like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck.” A Hu-Li is a two thousand year old were-creature who adores Nabokov and resembles a Lolita—“nowadays everybody’s read Lolita, even the Lolitas.” She engages clients at high end Moscow hotel bars, takes their money but does not have sex with them. A session with A Hu-Li, the trickster fox, is a chimera. A hypnotic suggestion channeled through the power of her glorious red tail—“the organ that we use to spin our web of illusion.” While the client is immersed in splendid fantasies copulating with the hotel bed sheets, A Hu-Li feeds off of the sexual energy produced by the lone client and sits flipping through a glossy magazine. When she momentarily nods off her client, a Sikh businessman, “slips off the tail” and in a state of shock proceeds to throw himself from the hotel room window, “One of my sisters used to say that when a client slips off the tail during an unsuccessful session, for a few seconds he sees the truth. And for a man this truth is so unbearable that the first thing he wants to do is kill the fox responsible for revealing it to him, and then he wants to kill himself . . .” A Hu-Li finds herself surrounded by wolves, that is, the FSB (nee KGB, nee NKVD, nee CHEKA.)

Click here for the full review.

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“What a crazy idea that was—to change the name of the KGB. One of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed!”

Pelevin has a great knack for relaying the oddities of the Russian condition in terms that almost anyone can understand. Product placement in Generation “P” revealed to the rest of the world that, yes, young people of the post-communist era did indeed choose Pepsi, or perestroika, but with the same freedom as when their parents chose Brezhnev, that is none at all. This time Pelevin’s leitmotif is the Russian folktale. In Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Pelevin has dusted off the characters of fox and wolf—stars of the traditional Russian folktales collected by Alexandr Afanas’ev in the mid nineteenth century. In Sacred Book, Pelevin has personified fox as a sex worker and wolf as an FSB agent.

In Russian folktales, fox is the perpetual trickster. In keeping with this Pelevin’s fox is a prostitute named A Hu-Li. The name itself is a profanity in Russian to match her occupation which translates to “[s]omething like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck.” A Hu-Li is a two thousand year old were-creature who adores Nabokov and resembles a Lolita—“nowadays everybody’s read Lolita, even the Lolitas.” She engages clients at high end Moscow hotel bars, takes their money but does not have sex with them. A session with A Hu-Li, the trickster fox, is a chimera. A hypnotic suggestion channeled through the power of her glorious red tail—“the organ that we use to spin our web of illusion.” While the client is immersed in splendid fantasies copulating with the hotel bed sheets, A Hu-Li feeds off of the sexual energy produced by the lone client and sits flipping through a glossy magazine. When she momentarily nods off her client, a Sikh businessman, “slips off the tail” and in a state of shock proceeds to throw himself from the hotel room window, “One of my sisters used to say that when a client slips off the tail during an unsuccessful session, for a few seconds he sees the truth. And for a man this truth is so unbearable that the first thing he wants to do is kill the fox responsible for revealing it to him, and then he wants to kill himself . . .” A Hu-Li finds herself surrounded by wolves, that is, the FSB (nee KGB, nee NKVD, nee CHEKA.)

In Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp meticulously reduced the Russian folktale to a series of functions. Unfortunately, he ignored class. Russian folktales seem to be split into two categories—the mundane folkloric tales pertaining to commoners and the grandiose fairytales dealing with royalty. In the former fox and wolf cohabitate, are occasionally spouses and live modestly among both the human and the animal denizens of the forest. These tales do not always contain a “hero” and tend to be anecdotal. All creatures are at the mercy of the cunning little fox as she lies, cheats and steals from them. However, there is no place for fox in the latter category, the grandiose fairytales that deal with themes of usurpation, murder, intrigue and betrayal in the once upon a time kingdoms of Russia. Unlike fox, bear or cow, it is the grey wolf alone who can cross over and fluidly operate both among the forest dwellers and the royals. The power struggle for control of the kingdom is especially the domain of the wolf as the power struggle for control of Russia is the domain of the FSB. The wolf is a facilitator usually servicing a wronged prince, the “hero” proper. He is capable of reanimating the dead and has the ability to transform into a horse or even a human being. The wolf’s interference consistently changes the outcome of what appear to be deadlocked situations. In the grandiose fairytales the wolf is his own man, so to speak, as all around him man is wolf to man.

Alexander is the FSB werewolf who steals A Hu-Li’s heart. He and the other werewolves maintain files on citizens and work at extracting oil from the ground of northern Russia by howling at the moon. Their howls are lamentations meant to draw tears from an ancient folkloric brindled cow skull patched together by steel bands. If the wolves’ lament filled cries draw tears from the skull the earth will produce oil. “_I know what you think of us—no matter how much you give them, Little Khavroshka won’t get a single drop, it will all be gobbled up by these kukis-yukises, yupsi-poopses and the other locusts who obscure the very light of day. You are right, brindled cow, that is how it will be._” “Kukis-yukises, yupsi-poopses” refers to YUKOS, the short lived non-state owned Russian oil and gas company, a product of post-perestroika privatization it was dismantled by the Russian government amongst charges of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement with its head Khodorovsky tried and sentenced to a Siberian prison in 2005. In Pelevin’s folktale, Alexander the FSB wolf is awarded The Medal for Services to the Motherland for his heroic oil extracting howls.

Everything goes well for fox and wolf until fox affectionately kisses wolf for the first time transforming him into a dog. As in the folktales a wolf, regardless of how noble or heroic he is, will be doomed to play the hapless fool at the mercy of the little trickster fox as long as they occupy the same story and since A Hu-Li is the narrator of Sacred Book it is very much her tale. Alexander the wolf becomes a black dog of misfortune that “happens” to people and to things. Initially emasculated and ousted from the FSB werewolf pack for having turned from a gray werewolf into a black dog he is depressed and filled with resentment until Alexander realizes that he carries misfortune with him everywhere he goes and that this willful misfortune can be utilized by the FSB.

‘I was just thinking, maybe I should go to work. To find out how things are going.’

I was staggered.

‘Are you serious? Aren’t three bullets enough for you? You want more?’

‘You get these misunderstandings in our profession.’

Pelevin has always played with symbolic narrative by marrying the fantastic to the doldrums of contemporary life. In Life of Insects, Pelevin’s characters are savvy little bugs with identities and agendas all their own, unnoticed in the grander scheme of things they are completely engrossed in the dramas of modern life nonetheless, tiny negligible representations of bustling individuals at large in society. In the case of Sacred Book, the outcome is satire or a veiled Russian state of the union address where sex workers and FSB agents seek to evolve into a higher being, a sort of messiah that all were-creatures await called the super-werewolf and “the super-werewolf can’t be caught by the tail.” Perhaps Pelevin is attempting to relay that Russians have been living their lives in a perpetual state of moral ambiguity going back as far as the ancient folktales. In such a state, why shouldn’t a fox or a wolf or a sex worker or an FSB agent aspire to evolve into a higher being?

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue, which came out from New York Review Books last fall. NYRB has also published Sorokin’s Ice, and have plans to do a few of his other titles as well. That, plus FSG’s publication of A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik might lead to a Sorokin moment . . . One that doesn’t involve his books being flushed down a mock toilet. . . .

Margarita Shalina from St. Mark’s Bookshop wrote this review, which opens:

Each act of transgression, no matter how nominal or extreme expands the margins of ongoing discourse. Sorokin specializes in such acts. The Queue, his first novel, was originally published in the mid 1980s by French publisher Syntaxe. It is a postmodern snapshot of a surreal bygone era destined for collapse, cursed to the privations of the economic crash of the 1990s where a system of ration cards will be implemented, only to be reborn from the ash like a bright red phoenix of pseudo-capitalism caged by a land of murdered journalists, a market flooded by counterfeit Chinese goods.

However, that is the present. The past of The Queue is oddly innocent as Russia is seemingly cursed to forever lose and regain its innocence much like Prometheus and his liver. Why is it innocent? Because it has never been clear to anyone what the citizens of the Soviet Union actually thought of the Soviet Union. Somewhere along the line, the citizens understood what they had lost but they all still agreed that by forfeiting their basic rights, they would be taken care of. With conformity came the security of jobs, healthcare, homes, education, maybe even a Volga. Now, in the aftermath of collapse, sentimentality is wide spread, surfacing among the generations that vividly remember the oddities of the Soviet Union, akin to some mass hysteria or Stockholm Syndrome acting itself out as we love our torturer but only after he has left the room. [For the rest, click here.

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Each act of transgression, no matter how nominal or extreme expands the margins of ongoing discourse. Sorokin specializes in such acts. The Queue, his first novel, was originally published in the mid 1980s by French publisher Syntaxe. . .

Read More...

4 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is Margarita Shalina’s piece on New European Poets, a mammoth, important anthology recently released by Graywolf and edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer.

As Margarita (who works at St. Mark’s Bookshop and translates from Russian) writes:

It is difficult to get beyond the novelty inherent in the New European Poets project. Its remarkable scope, breadth and depth show-cases 290 poets representing 45 nations, all bridged by nearly 200 translators and directed by 24 regional editors. Every contributing poet’s first collection was published in or after 1970. The motivation behind the project is two-fold, reintroduce and reengage American readers with European poetry and express how the borders of Europe have been redrawn in recent decades there by altering its regional identities along with its identity as a whole. And what is contemporary Europe anyway?

Read the rest here.

4 November 08 | Chad W. Post |

Where is that wild and endemic high-heeled shoe Europe . . . ?

— Branko Cegec
(translated from the Croatian by Miljenko Kovacicek)

It is difficult to get beyond the novelty inherent in the New European Poets project. Its remarkable scope, breadth and depth show-cases 290 poets representing 45 nations, all bridged by nearly 200 translators and directed by 24 regional editors. Every contributing poet’s first collection was published in or after 1970. The motivation behind the project is two-fold, reintroduce and reengage American readers with European poetry and express how the borders of Europe have been redrawn in recent decades there by altering its regional identities along with its identity as a whole. And what is contemporary Europe anyway?

Is it the landmass whose topology begins at the Atlantic shore, expanding north to Scandinavia, south to the Mediterranean then eastward, coming to a halt at the Ural Mountains? Is the EU contemporary Europe? Is Iceland? Is Turkey? Is Russia a European nation? Are the endangered languages of Sami and Romani European languages? Europe is a patch-work quilt of a continent, comprised of mutually exclusive diverse ethnic identities and languages. In these many Europes—nationality, ethnicity, culture, people, language and poetry are absolutely idiosyncratic, particular to themselves. The opposite is also true as Europe is now more open than it ever was during the bulk of the twentieth century. Traveling by train through Western Europe it is not unusual to hear a young person’s voice come over the loud speaker making mundane but fluent announcements about the dining car hours in 5 different languages. Then again, the further east one travels the more complicated things become. Poland and the Czech Republic now consider themselves Central, as opposed to Eastern, Europe no doubt making a political statement while simultaneously acknowledging national trauma. The parts and pieces of the former Yugoslavia and the shards and slivers of the former Eastern Bloc are further testament that the term “nation” is not a static one. As New European Poets is a Herculean undertaking toward celebrating and promoting poetry, it is also an inadvertent definition of what contemporary Europe has become as expressed through the singing of its bards.

We open with the quivering dramatic neurosis of Portugal’s Adilia Lopes as she laments “once I was beautiful now I am myself” in Elizabeth Doesn’t Work Here Anymore (with a few things borrowed from Anne Sexton). We shift northward to William Cliff of Belgium and his exceptional Ballade of the Mouse (After Charles d’Orleans) “I stopped appearing in the spots/where once I used to perch my puny/build, they made a grave pronouncement/I hereby trounce as tactless jive/this little mouse is still alive.” We move into Central Europe, into Germany, with the über-contemporary Recovery Room written by Uljana Wolf, translated by the author and Christian Hawkey:

                                —and if there were
no borders that could again define us in

these fields in post narcotic sniffling—
we would stick very close to this our i

Willfully and fearlessly contributing to the destruction of Adorno’s edict “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Senadin Musabegovic, representing Bosnia and Herzegovina, in her poem Dawn at Auschwitz writes “. . . and the officer’s shining badge from which/the eagle with spread-out wings / plucks out pieces of my flesh / enter me / like darkness enters / a child’s eyes.” Poland, having disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795, reappearing only to tragically run smack into two World Wars has emerged to establish itself an uncontested literary and poetic powerhouse. Ewa Sonnenberg writes, “My funny little poem I’ll warm you in my hands / we’ll tell life we’re sorry for writing not living / your naïve and tender efforts to spy on naked words . . .” Finally, as intrinsic climates shape each country’s identity as much as politics, culture or war, Sweden’s Eva Runefelt beautifully relays in her bleak, cold and quiet The Slowness “like the chill from a half-open window, from foot to neck / There is space enough in the finger moving along a back. / How far in does the slowness go?”

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker put a Babel Fish in his ear which enabled him to understand every form of language. Rightly in keeping with the dedication of the anthology which reads “to all who translate” the contributing translators of New European Poets have brought across the poetry of their European counterparts in the lingua franca, English, for an American audience. These translators include, Anselm Hollo, Rosemarie Waldrop, John Ashbery, Wanda Phipps, Paul Muldoon, Charles Simic, Christian Hawkey, Derek Walcott and Cole Swenson to name a few. Beyond the role of “translator” it should be noted that these are the proliferators of contemporary poetry being written in the English language today. They are our poets, our native poets, our immigrant poets, our nation-of-birth-hyphenated-American and international poets. They are individuals who write in the English language, teach in the American Universities and are the recipients of major American literary awards. In many cases, these are individuals who were born in Europe but who live and work in the United States and who inadvertently maintain the ongoing conversation that is both contemporary American and European poetry through the duality of their identities. This added element of cultural exchange to the project makes it a nearly perfect undertaking.

13 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Our latest review is by Margarita Shalina, who reviews Alexandr Skidan’s Red Shifting, a collection of poems which won the Andrei Bely Prize in 2006.

13 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Alexandr Skidan’s mentor, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, describes Red Shifting as “[s]omnambulistic.” Indeed, Skidan creates dream-poems. What is at play in the dream-poem? Incest and GAS! The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Bely and Blok. Vladivostok and St. Petersburg. In this exploration of the inside versus the outside, the reader must first accept being trapped in a dream. Next, the reader must become Daniel, deciphering the secrets and codes Skidan has hidden in his dream-poems “like Nebuchadnezzar.”

In “Delirium”, Skidan’s subject is the biblical story of Lot who God instructs to flee Sodom before the city is destroyed. Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt when she looks back at the destruction of the city. Lot flees to the desert, alone with his two daughters. Uncomprehending, the daughters believe it is the end of the world. That only procreation with their father will ensure the continuation of the human race. They get him drunk and seduce.

(…) the fading of the annihilated echo. lot, falling like a stone in the oblivion of a sling,
conceives the unknown, led by
the degree of “fall;” the daughter enters him and again –
the daughter, another. A daughterly darkness, cascading down,
covers Israel;

A self contained ellipsis ushers in this velvet destruction of the echo creating a vacuum of sound. Throughout the poem, the echo will reappear – “[b]ut these dances by the fire fire.” Dance implies music but the only music is Lot’s drunkenness and incestuous sex. In the end, the annihilation of the echo will be complete. There will be no words in the last stanza, instead a series of dots representing words, lines left unspoken, silence.

Skidan uses his intellect as reflective armor. Each poem contains a riddle in which he confesses through masque. In the world of Red Shifting, characters from mythology, critical theory and literature coexist with Skidan’s intimates from contemporary St. Petersburg. At times these friends, acquaintances and civilians are signified by a single letter, at times by entire first names. The title poem, Red Shifting, is possibly the most direct poem in the collection. It is a day in the life, where the poet shifts in and out of conversation with those around him while observing and contemplating everyone that he encounters. He desires the cool G as they smoke cigarettes.

(I take out a cigarette, and before my eyes are these two
photographs; I want to forget them, want to see them, but in order
to forget them, I need to write about them, and in order to see
them – I need the opposite: to be with G.)

The poet plays with repetition but does not literally repeat himself. Skidan’s echo theme now plays out through doubling, or two-ness. Through the two photographs of the quote, then again in “I have two dead people on my hands.” Taking it further, Skidan introduces two-ness in love—Blok and Bely, both in love with Lyubov Dmitrievna, then The Sheltering Sky. This bread crumb trail moves away from G to the absent A. A may return and this possible return rattles the poet and again the dream-poem ends in silence, “The thought which I didn’t have the power to say out loud.”

In “Red Bridge”, and again in “Piercing of the Lower Lip”, it is San Francisco reflected across the Pacific Ocean as Vladivostok that the poet contemplates – “I heard a pacific newspaper rustle in the wind, and standing at the far end of Golden Gate Bridge…I saw Vladivostok.” Through poetry, Skidan allows himself to exist in two places, at two points in time with the Pacific Ocean serving as an enormous mirror warped by distance. This writing from an intentionally distorted perspective is what Dragomoshchenko refers to as Skidan “building a backward mirror.” But there is another mirror, the mirror of translation. Principal translator Genya Turovskaya, has successfully created a mirror image in English of Skidan’s careful and intentional Russian language while preserving Skidan’s uniquely erudite voice peppered with controlled bursts of vulgarity. Retaining Skidan’s love of vocabulary rooted in Latin, Turovskaya’s translations are astute echoes, clear reflections containing microscopic detail.

Alexandr Skidan was awarded the St. Petersburg-based Andrei Bely Prize in 2006 for the Russian edition of Red Shifting.

Red Shifting
By Alexandr Skidan
Translated by Genya Turovskaya
Ugly Duckling Presse
170 pgs, $15.00

6 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Our latest review is by Margarita Shalina, who reviews a collection of writings by and about Vladimir Mayakovsky, Night Wraps the Sky, which was edited by Michael Almereyda.

6 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

“A Mayakovsky Bestiary”

Maria –
Don’t you want me?
You don’t want me!
“A Cloud in Pants” (p. 103), Vladimir Mayakovsky

Big man with a big voice, Futurist, prisoner in solitary confinement, graphic designer, propagandist, early Soviet film star, Poet, suicide. There is no comprehensive collection of Mayakovsky’s poetry available in English and in response to the lack Michael Almereyda has assembled “a Mayakovsky bestiary.” Night Wraps the Sky: Writing By and About Mayakovsky is a scrapbook assemblage of prose and poetry, a carefully edited montage of language and imagery—imagine a book-length Rodchenko collage with the atmosphere of a black and white silent film. Mayakovsky’s more autobiographical and better known poems including A Few Words About Myself, with the scandalously infamous opening of “I love to watch children dying,” are presented in a single language edition with fresh translations by Katya Apekina, Val Vinokur and Matvei Yankelevich.

Early on, John Berger’s spot-on essay explains how the stars aligned for the young Mayakovsky as he was discovering his way in life. Pushkin wrote language and plot which combined the colloquial with the erudite and Mayakovsky— combining the low brow with high brow—is a direct descendant of this tradition. After the Revolution, as part of the sweeping reforms that the new government was imposing, the Russian language itself was simplified. A growing literate proletariat audience found Mayakovsky’s muscular verse to be accessible and stirring. “Then he reads his poems. The whole hall, opponents and supporters, cools into an attentive, tense silence. With unrivaled mastery Mayakovsky recites. His famous voice rings out bold and sincere, filling every nook and cranny of the museum hall. Even the attendants, who have heard many, many things in that hall, listen spellbound.”

He was dynamic, street-smart and handsome. He understood how to Talk Dirty and Influence People as Lenny Bruce would say, though Vinokur compares him to Eminem. Whether intuitive or intentional, wielding his larger than life being and his booming voice, Mayakovsky understood performance and crowd psychology.

Mayakovsky carried the Revolution in his coat pocket and wrote leftist political poetry as he carried Lili Brik in his heart. Completing the triad forming an already open relationship, Mayakovsky met Lili and Osip Brik in July, 1915 which he classified as “Happiest Date” in his journals. Lili Brik began establishing herself as Mayakovsky’s muse. In Lilichka! written in 1916, the poet celebrates his love for his Little-Lili but even through the coarse of the celebration there is an overt desperation present; a foreshadowing of loss that can derive only through uncertainty. He could command an auditorium of people but Mayakovsky could not control Lili or his own seeming obsession with the Briks.

In the bleary front hall,
my arm, broken by trembling,
doesn’t fit into the sleeve.
I’ll run out,
throw my body into the street.
Feral,
crazed,
lacerated by despair.

The imagery is reminiscent of early Akhmatova’s famous poetic moment, from the collection Evening, where silently and internally shattered but self-contained a woman places her left glove onto her right hand. Mayakovsky has none of Akhmatova’s tempered restraint. He is feral but he loves too. What is the difference? “Acmeism [Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Gumilyov] was an apartment with a window that looked out on an imagined green and blue landscape from Italy, and an old library with very few books; Futurism [Mayakovsky, Shklovsky, Lili and Osip Brik] was a house with a red-haired dog, a Mexican blanket, and thin paper for printing magazines.”

While post-Revolution Russia seemed to be in a perpetual state of flux, Lenin’s death served as the water-marker denoted that all things ahead were deeper and murkier. By the time Mayakovsky was to have his twenty year retrospective, Stalin was solidly in power. “His exhibition Twenty Years of Work, which opened on February 1, 1930 . . . was boycotted by all official writers’ groups, and was visited almost exclusively by students. He paced the empty rooms, with a ‘sad and austere face, arms folded behind him.’”

Perhaps the most important thing that Almereyda brings across is showing how Mayakovsky has survived through time. Regardless of the lack of a comprehensive selection of his poetry in English, he has been able to influence the English speaking world in addition to the Russian.

. . . always embrace things, people earth
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens
and you should follow it to hell, if
necessary, which I doubt.
A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island, Frank O’Hara, 1958

Night Wraps the Sky: Writings By and About Mayakovsky
Edited by Michael Almereyda
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pgs, $27.00

....
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