16 September 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our love for Marian Schwartz—translator from the Russian of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair along with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard and all the Andrei Gelasimov books that AmazonCrossing has been bringing out, and dozens of other works—runs deep, which is why we’re all really excited that she won the Read Russia Prize in the Contemporary Russian Literature category.

The awards ceremony for the Read Russia Prize has taken place on September, 6 within the stately confines of Moscow’s Pashkov House, part of the Russian State Library. This biennial event, which is supported by the Moscow Institute of Translation, is designed to honor the best translators working in any language and to facilitate the further translation of Russian literature. It encompasses four categories: Classic Russian Literature, 20th Century Russian Literature (published before 1990), Contemporary Russian Literature (published after 1990), and Poetry. [. . .]

The nominees for the Contemporary Russian Literature category were Julie Bouvard for her French translation of Eduard Kochergin’s Christened with Crosses, Ives Gauthier for her French translation of Andrei Rubanov’s A Successful Life, Nicoletta Marcialis for her Italian translation of Zakhar Prilepin’s Sin, Ljubinka Milincic for her Serbian translation of Georgy Vladimov’s The General and His Army, Ewa Rojewska-Olejarczuk for her Polish translation of Viktor Pelevin’s T, and Marian Schwartz for her English translation of Leonid Yuzefovich’s Harlequin’s Costume. The winner was Marian Schwartz, who was emotional and grateful as she accepted her award.

Emotional and grateful and BAD ASS.

Following this deserved victory, Russia Beyond the Headlines did a whole feature on Marian that’s both wonderful and fascinating.

It kicks off with a bit about Harlequin’s Costume, which came out from Glagoslav in 2013:

The novel is the first in a trilogy, based on the real-life adventures of Ivan Putilin, a legend in his own lifetime. In the late 19th century Putilin was a chief inspector of police, chasing St. Petersburg’s most notorious criminals. Later contemporaries dubbed him a Russian Sherlock Holmes, but in Yuzefovich’s hands, Putilin’s stories become something richer and more multi-layered than traditional murder mysteries. Harlequin’s Costume originally appeared in Russian in 2001, and its sequel, Prince of the Wind, won the National Bestseller literary prize.

OK, that sounds pretty good, but check out the jacket copy:

The year is 1871. Prince von Ahrensburg, Austria’s military attaché to St. Petersburg, has been killed in his own bed. The murder threatens diplomatic consequences for Russia so dire that they could alter the course of history. Leading the investigation into the high-ranking diplomat’s death is Chief Inspector Ivan Putilin, but the Tsar has also called in the notorious Third Department – the much-feared secret police – on the suspicion that the murder is politically motivated. As the clues accumulate, the list of suspects grows longer; there are even rumors of a werewolf at large in the capital. Suspicion falls on the diplomat’s lover and her cuckolded husband, as well as Russian, Polish and Italian revolutionaries, not to mention Turkish spies.

That’s how you sell a book. Cuckholds and werewolves.

What’s particularly interesting is that this is one of the few books that Marian translated on spec, hoping that she would find a publisher for it.

“Having translated about 70 books over the last 35-plus years, fewer than five of them, probably, have been at my initiative,” she told the Moscow audience for the Read Russia Award Presentations. “I found, appreciated, and translated Harlequin’s Costume on spec, convinced that it would find a publisher eventually.” In the end, the book was finished only with help from a grant, and it was several years before Glagoslav published it in 2013.

“My hope is that this prize will help in finding a publisher for all of Yuzefovich’s books,” says Schwartz, describing him as “one of the most overlooked authors in English translation.” She is also translating and seeking a publisher for Yuzefovich’s more recent, more serious novel Cranes and Pygmies, which won the Big Book award in 2009.

I have a feeling that a few publishers are going to be contacting her about this . . .

Another great aspect of this article is that it gets at why Marian became a translator, and what she hopes to accomplish. These bits should be really interesting to anyone new to the field—anyone hoping to translated 70+ books over their lifetime:

“I became a translator,” she says, “largely because I felt that was the one role – bringing Russian literature to the English-speaking audience – I could play best. It was something a native speaker of Russian could not do.” [. . .]

The intended readership is central to Schwartz’s perception of her role. She told RBTH last year that she would “dearly love to see more … translated books that would appeal to a broader audience.” Apart from Yuzefovich, the authors she wants to translate more of in future include Andrei Gelasimov, whose comic, poignant, accessible novels she has almost single-handedly brought to the attention of Anglophone readers. She also has her eye on Olga Slavnikova’s novel The Man Who Couldn’t Die (Bessmertny) and Dina Rubina’s novel The Petrushka Syndrome.

“What all these books have in common, apart from their literary brilliance,” says Schwartz, “is what I see as their potential appeal to the Western reader. These are books I’d like to share with the American audience.”

I don’t read this as Marian seeking out pulpy best-sellers that Americans with Twilight for, but rather that her role is bringing interesting works of Russian literature to Americans—blending her knowledge of U.S. readers and academics with her expertise in Russian lit.

Marian really is a hero and having the chance to meet her in person is one of the reasons I encourage all emerging translators to attend ALTA.

15 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that the World Cup of Literature is officially over, with Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile taking home the prize, it’s time to get back to writing normal blog posts, starting with this much overdue “preview” of forthcoming July translations.

My initial plan with this post was to write it “live blog” style from Las Vegas where I was last month for the American Library Association conference. Unfortunately, many things got in the way of that, starting with the $14.95/day wifi costs in my hotel (Open Letter saves its money to spend on translators, not to allow me to make dumb jokes!), not to mention the 9am kickoff for the World Cup games, and the alcohol that I drank (see insane Eiffel Tower drink below).

So, instead, I’m going to try and work some of my observations into the write-ups below. But, unlike the music industry, which hasn’t brought out much of anything good this month, publishers are dropping some awesome stuff this summer. Bitov, Robbe-Grillet, Volodine, Haas, Can Xue . . . There are some legit overviews below to go with the usual assortment of random crap.

But to set the scene a bit: Way back when, before BEA locked itself into being in Jacob Javits’s glass house for a decade (or whatever), the show was supposed to take place in Las Vegas. Given the nonsensical nature of BEA and its parties, I couldn’t wait for this show. Booksellers AND strippers??! Lowly publicity assistants blowing their per diem at the craps table?? More drunken beardos than the streets of Brooklyn after a Pavement concert! SIGN ME UP.

Unfortunately, that BEA got moved to the Western West Side and was like every other BEA: A bit unfocused, a bit depressing, and a bit self-congratulatory.

Fast-forward a bunch of years, and now, when I’m too old to fully rock out anymore of course, I finally get to attend a convention in Vegas. One with fellow nerdy book people! Heading into it, I figured this was going to be great, and that I was going to lead at least a dozen librarians into nights of bad decision making.

Just to pause for a moment though, these are the people who attend ALA:

And those are the librarians from Austin. So, yeah. Vegas. Librarians. Books, booze, and gambling. Free flowing liquor. Temps above 110. My never-ending depression. What could possibly go wrong?

The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Yale University Press)

Can Xue has to be the female Chinese author with the most books translated into English. She’s been published by Henry Holt, Northwestern, Open Letter, Yale, and has appeared in a number of issues of Conjunctions. Part of this is because she’s a fucking brilliant and strange writer, part of this is due to her natural charm. I finally had a chance to meet her in person last fall at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival (see our interview) and immediately signed on another of her novels, Frontier. This isn’t much of a secret, really, but publishers like to work with people they like. I’ll happily sign on a book that’s an 8 out of 10 instead of a book that’s a 10 out of 10 if the author/translator is someone that I really respect and like working with.

Which is why certain people won’t ever translate anything for Open Letter. Ever.

And I’ll bet you were expecting the “last lover” to lead to some sort of joke about escorts and Vegas and librarians . . .

Rachel by Andrei Gelasimov, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Amazon Crossing)

This is the fourth of Gelasimov’s books that Amazon Crossing has published, three of which (including this one) are on sale for $1.99 right now. Say what you will about pricing, Hachette, and the decline of modern civilization, this is worth taking advantage of if for no other reason than the fact that Marian translated the books. She’s one of the most amazing translators we’ve got, and if she loves an author—like she does with Gelasimov—everyone should pay attention.

A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, translated from the French by D.E. Brooke (Dalkey Archive Press)

In Vegas, I stayed in Bally’s hotel, which is attached to the Paris hotel. Or rather, Le Paris hotel. For those of you who haven’t been to Vegas, consider yourselves lucky. The Paris hotel includes a huge replica of the Eiffel Tower, which you can go up in on the “Le Eiffel Tower Adventure,” the tickets for which can be purchased next to “Le Bar,” which is across the way from “Le Toilettes” by “Le Sports Book.” I’m not even fucking with you—all the signs in this hotel have “Le” appended to them. Ninety percent of the time, these make no sense—shouldn’t it be “Les Toilettes”?—and the other one-hundred and ten percent of the time this is stupid as shit. It’s like the worst simulacrum ever.

On the upside, they do sell the “Le Eiffel Daiquiri,” a two-foot tall Eiffel Tower “glass” filled with 10-12 shots of rum. All for $16.95! Well, $16.95 and most of your better judgement.

Come, Sweet Death! by Wolf Haas, translated from the German by Annie Janusch (Melville House)

The U.S. vs. Germany World Cup match took place the first morning that I was in Vegas. I had talked a lot of shit to Nick from NYRB about getting up super early, finding a crazy bar to watch it in, etc., etc., but at 8am when my alarm went off, I thought I’d rather just stay in bed and avoid all the American Outlaws. One problem: no matter where I looked, I couldn’t find the remote for my TV. Not on the TV stand, not in any of the drawers, not on top of the armoire, not under the bed, nowhere. So I rushed out, basically ran across to the one sports bar I already had scoped out, and ordered a coffee. Surprisingly, they did have coffee, but no coffee mugs . . . Instead, they served me a pint of coffee with a little sleeve so that I wouldn’t burn the shit out of my hand. A pint of coffee.

This was one of my favorite Vegas experiences though, since I was seated between two dudes who chain smoked the entire game while playing video poker and downing screwdrivers. They had clearly been there all night, and were holding on to shreds of dignity and hope. Neither of them won jack, and one guy’s friends never came to collect him from wherever they had been partying all night.

I did end up partaking in the $2 beer specials, which was probably the reason I fell asleep at the hotel pool a few hours later and woke up as red as I’ve ever been in my life . . . I’m still peeling . . . Once you turn 40, a 9am beer is the equivalent of twelve evening drinks. This is a life lesson for all you youngsters: Enjoy your wake’n‘drink days before your body starts to hate you.

Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (FSG)

Of all the books on this list, this is the one that I’m most excited to read. I loved Bitov’s Pushkin House (which Dalkey reissued a number of years back), and Michael Orthofer gave this one an A-. Based on the description—that this is an “echo book” of a book that Bitov once read and foggily remembers, but that leads him to create a series of self-reflexive, nested stories—it sounds like a fun, complicated game of a novel. And Orthofer really sells it with this:

The different stories that make up the novel are not so much unfinished or incomplete, but rather part of an overlapping continuity that probably can best be compared to an Escher loop (or loops of Escher loops . . .): not neatly nested, à la Calvino, or adhering to some similar determined Oulipian schemes, but rather capriciously folding back on themselves across time and space, the author’s guiding hand in the frame but handing off responsibility in his layers of authorial invention, attributing a great deal to A. Tired-Boffin, who in turn credits Urbino Vanoski. etc. [. . .]

The Symmetry Teacher is about books and reading and writing that transcend the actual set text — literary echoes that arise and exist separately from what is in a fixed, written state. This is a novel where, typically, a character enthuses about his vivid memory of a particular scene — but admits he no longer can find it.

Poetics of Wonder: Passage to Mogador by Alberto Ruy Sanchez, translated from the Spanish by Rhonda Buchanan (White Pine)

Alberto Ruy Sanchez is included in our new anthology, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, which may well be the most beautiful book we’ve ever published. Edelweiss does the design no favors, but you should click that link to see how amazing this is, and to request a digital reading copy. (Although you really should just buy the real thing.)

I’m sure most people already knew this, but Vegas has a monorail, which, every single time I saw it referenced, reminded me of this Simpson’s epidode:

Why this song isn’t playing continuously on every monorail platform is a failure on Vegas’s part.

Writers by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by Katina Rogers (Dalkey Archive)

To prepare for our upcoming pre-sales call, I just started reading all the Open Letter titles scheduled to come out in 2015 between April-August. Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven (which, according to at least a few reviewers, is far superior to Writers), Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, Juan José Saer’s The One Before . . . Obviously, I love the books we publish, but this is that period of time when the dyssynchrony of being in the book world are the most apparent. We got the rights to Physics of Sorrow back in September of 2012, and no one else will be able to read this before the end of the year. But I read (or rather, reread) the first 50 pages last night, and I want everyone I know to have access to this right fricking now. It’s one of the best things I’ve read all year. But by the time I can mail it out to people, I’ll be reading the book coming out in January 2016 and my desire to talk Physics with other book people will be somewhat dulled. And by the time ordinary readers (compared to booksellers and reviewers who will receive advanced reading copies) get their hands on this, we’ll be reading excerpts and signing on books for 2017.

I’m not sure I have a real point here, just that books and music are most of my life, and it’s a weird experience when you remember that huge portions of your “life” are spent reading in a social void of sorts. That and: you all must read Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven and The Physics of Sorrow. As soon as they come out. And then email/tweet/text me.

Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin (Bloomsbury)

I just want to point out that this book is listed on the Bloomsbury website as part of Bloomsbury Circus. What the fuck is that, you ask?

Bloomsbury Circus is a place of fine writing from all over the world. There are exciting debuts and brilliant new work from such established writers as Patrick McGrath, Lucy Ellmann, Alice McDermott and Tobias Hill. Like any good circus, it is a list that is not frightened to take risks, while always being entertaining.

So, by “all over the world,” they mean Britain, Scotland, and America? Maybe those are the “three rings” of this “circus”? Bloomsbury, your metaphor sucks. “Bloomsbury Circus” sounds like the publisher of kids books about acrobats and fucking clowns.

Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield (And Other Stories)

I think it’s pretty ironic that & Other Stories which has the URL “stories.com” is a bag/accessories/shoes/lingerie shop. Why “stories”?

Speaking of random shops though, there’s a Britney Spears Boutique in Vegas. I assume that it’s wall-to-wall signed copies of Crossroads.

Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (McSweeney’s Books)

I haven’t made fun of Flavorwire’s list in a while, but this one on the 35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet deserves to be laughed at. When I clicked on this, I was hoping for some conspiracy theory shit linking an unknown writer to media leaks about how Amazon burns 13 Hachette books a day as part of some corporate ritual, or something interesting like that. Instead, it’s a list of writers with the most Twitter followers. Because Twitter equals the Internet and having the most followers is equivalent to “running it.”

(Except for Zadie Smith! “She’s one of the few big-name writers who has managed to develop a huge Internet presence without even seeming to spend much time online.” In other words, she’s a writer that people really like. How does she even fit in under the “Runs the Literary Internet” rubric? According to the description, what she “runs” is her own writing. Whatever.)

I know—and respect—some of the people on this list, others make me want to scratch my eyes out when I hear them speak on panels, most I don’t “follow” and, to be honest, don’t feel like I’m missing anything . . . Also, I know Flavorwire exists to create log-rolling lists as clickbait and to get the “listed” people to retweet the lists, generating more clicks and ensuring that these people (the listed) can end up on be on more lists and everyone can all end up at the same over-priced Brooklyn speakeasy drinking PBRs and old fashioneds. So this isn’t anything personal against anyone involved—everyone is awesome.

That said, I love this comment: “Dear Flavorwire, America is not the world, for Chrissakes.” Having fallen for way too many Flavorwire headline teases, I can assure you that, in the eyes of Flavorwire, America and Karl Ove Knausgaard ARE the world.

Secondly, the pictures of the women screaming with their mouths open? Is this a new meme? It’s very unsettling.

Also, the only good thing about the World Cup being over is that Teju Cole will no longer be tweeting about it. I know he’s got a million and one fans who will “rise as one” to annihilate me, but to be honest, I think his World Cup tweets were the worst. So self-absorbed and pedantic and boring. Kaija’s #WorldCupTaunting bits were edgier, funnier, and much more entertaining than things like “Guillermo ‘CTRL S’ Ochoa.”

Nothing was as bad as the #thetimeofthegame “idea.” Just check this out:

What’s funniest to me is that he took a screen cap of his own Twitter feed as his #thetimeofthegame entry. Twitter is like a Bloomsbury Circus of crap.

(Also, I know that these rants are why Open Letter books never make Flavorwire’s lists, for which I apologize to all our authors and translators. My jokes about things that suck shouldn’t represent Open Letter, but I’m afraid that some people take it that way.)

Guantanamo by Frank Smith, translated from the French by Vanessa Place (Les Figues)

I feel like explaining what I specifically didn’t like about Las Vegas will come off as a string of clichés . . . but that might be due to the fact that there’s no real separation from the depiction of Vegas in movies and TV shows—its excesses and bright lights and frenetic nature—and what it’s really like. The whole strip area is set up as one huge experiment in behavioral economics designed to get people to spend too much money and make terrible decisions. Every hotel is connected to every other hotel by way of thirteen areas stuffed with gamble machines. It’s all flashing and no straight path is actually straight. In between, the Paris and Bally hotels, you walk down a “hallway” that veers this way and that, coming out into a room of slots and tables and no idea which way to turn. This disorientation—a key behind shopping malls—facilitates the spending of money. The fact that there is no sense of time—it could be noon or five am—adds to this, and quickly turns a few drinks into an all-night bender involving $17 drinks with 12 shots of rum. That’s why hotel staff keeps asking “are you OK?” in that tone that implies that you might well need medical attention but just don’t realize it yet.

Vegas wants you to walk that fine line between “drunk enough to spend ten times what I was planning on” and “alcohol poisoning.” We were in a bar where you could order a kilo of cavier for $7,200. A kilo. Who the fuck says, “could I get a kilo of cavier please?” Someone who just won big at the blackjack table. Who believes this is “free money” and that the best way to get value out of this free money is to blow it in one big huge, story-creating sort of way: “Dude, I won ten grand at a poker tournament and bought Cristal and a kilo of cavier and hit up the strip joint and puked in the Bellagio fountain. It was fucking epic!”

Thing is, maybe Vegas is right. Maybe a life of books and music is totally overrated. (And that’s one more thing: culture really doesn’t seem to exist in Vegas. I’m sure it does, out in the city, in pockets, outside of the Stratosphere and the High Roller and everything else that sucks, but when you think Vegas, you think Celine and Britney and Carrot Top — Carrot Top! — none of which are interesting or novel or worth dropping $100 to see.) Vegas represents a cultural black hole where anything goes, where you can escape your normal shitty life and believe for a time that you’re a VIP, that you could win millions by betting on black, that the next drink will make you attractive. It’s supposed to be a place of ultimate freedom, but those freedoms seem, to me, as a cynical depressed bastard, to only involve cheap sex, all the drinking, and the highly unlikely dream of easy money.

Invisible Love by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Howard Curtis (Europa Editions)

I went to two “parties” during ALA: one about “gaming and cosplay,” the other sponsored by Central Recovery Press.

No one was cosplayed up for the gaming one, and apparently, in the library world, “gaming” means “board games.” As in, twenty librarians were sitting around a well-lit room playing board games. And no, there were no drinks. I lasted less than 30 seconds. Even BEA does better than that.

Central Recovery is a very admirable press dedicated to helping people overcome their addictions. Their party was out at Vegas City Hall, which is so much more interesting than the strip. It also seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere, past the “Gambling Supplies Warehouse” and just out of sight from Circus, Circus. A special shuttle bus had to bring us there, since walking that far—even from the last monorail stop—would basically leave you dehydrated and dead. Good thing the Central Recovery party had all the Coke you could desire! (I was expecting coffee and donuts, but alas.) Anyway, aside from the fact that I’m not in AA and prefer parties with beers, this set up would’ve been totally fine if I hadn’t have overheard someone say “the speeches will start in about 15 minutes” just as the bus, the only link to civilization, pulled away. I can live without wine, but living through multiple speeches—or a poetry reading lasting more than 10 minutes—is tough . . .

Nevertheless I survived, regained my non-sobriety at the Peppermill, and made it back from Vegas with my mind only slightly broken . . .

26 March 13 | Chad W. Post |

I think I’ve mentioned this once or twice in recent posts, but although Mikhail Shishkin won’t be attending BookExpo America this year he WILL be touring throughout the U.S. this April, starting in San Francisco and hitting up Austin, Boston, and New York City.

Below is a list of all the dates and general information along with links to the event listings themselves. Since he won’t be back in May for BEA, you should catch him—along with Russian translator Marian Schwartz—at one of these events.

AND you should buy his novel. It’s absolutely spectacular.

Thursday, April 4th, 7pm

The Center for the Art of Translation presents Mikhail Shishkin and Marian Schwartz

Hotel Rex
562 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

Tickets $10 advance, $15 at the door

*

Friday, April 5th, 7pm

Green Apple Books presents a Book Signing and Reception with Mikhail Shishkin

Green Apple Books
506 Clement St
San Francisco, CA

Monday, April 8th, 7pm

BookPeople presents a Celebration of Maidenhair

BookPeople
603 N Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX

*

Tuesday, April 9th, 4pm

‘In a Boat Scratched on the Wall: Language and Politics in Russia’ by Mikhail Shishkin

University of Texas
Texas Governors’ Room 3.116
The Texas Union
Austin, TX

Friday, April 12th, 6:30pm

Mikhail Shishkin in Conversation with Marian Schwartz

Harriman Institute
Columbia University
Hamilton Hall 702
New York, NY

*

Monday, April 15th, 7pm

Reading with Mikhail Shishkin

Hobart and William Smith
Geneva, NY

*

Tuesday, April 16th, 5:30pm

Reading the World Conversation Series: Mikhail Shishkin and Marian Schwartz

University of Rochester
Rush Rhees Library, Welles-Brown Room
Rochester, NY

*

Wednesday, April 17th, 7pm

Exhibit X Fiction Presents Mikhail Shishkin

Hallwalls
341 Delaware Ave.
Buffalo, NY

Tuesday, April 23rd, 4pm

Reading by Mikhail Shishkin

Boston College
Burns Library, Thompson Room
Boston, MA

*

Wednesday, April 24th, TBD

Reading by Mikhail Shishkin

College of the Holy Cross
1 College Street
Worcester, MA

*

Wednesday, May 1st, 6:30pm

The Critic’s Global Voice

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY10003

If you have any questions, or would like to get in touch with Shishkin to write about his works or one of these events, just contact me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu.

And once again, you really should buy Maidenhair.

21 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz and published by Open Letter Books

BROMANCE WILL IS IN THE HOUSE.

Mikhail Shishkin’s debut English-language novel Maidenhair deserves to win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because it is not only the best translated book in the best translation to have come out in English—it is the best book that came out in 2012, period. Accomplished translator Marian Schwartz has wrought a miraculous, beautiful, lyrical rendition of Shishkin’s unique poetic language that draws on the grandest narrative traditions of the nineteenth century classics and combines them with the living, breathing Russian language as it exists today.

Language itself, and the importance of the Word in life, love, and history, is at the heart of Maidenhair. The plot, or what semblance there is of a plot, centers on an unnamed interpreter who works for the Swiss immigration office, translating the horrific stories of would-be Russian immigrants describing why they deserve asylum in Switzerland to the interpreter’s boss, a figure described as Peter, guarding the gates of Heaven, determining who is able to enter Paradise within the Swiss borders. The interpreter is the axis on which the narrative magic of Maidenhair spins: he is a narrator who retells the stories of the asylum-seekers; a conduit for the historical stories he is reading about the Persian Wars; a doting father writing letters to his son, all addressed to “My dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!”; the son lives with his former wife, who in one thread travels to Rome with the narrator, only to have their marriage fall apart; he is a would-be biographer of a talented young singer in late tsarist, early Soviet period, Isabella Yurievna.

The stories all weave together in head-spinning fashion, the interpreter is the only connection between the separate narratives within the novel, though it takes a while for the reader to piece together how these stories are connected, as the characters’ philosophical monologues and asides demonstrate the grand themes Shishkin is working with. And that reminds me of Shishkin’s own words: that Maidenhair is not a novel to be understood, but rather to be felt; it is a novel that hinges less on plot than on the emotional resonance that connects each separate story. Schwartz handles the narrative shifts within Maidenhair with the grace of a prima ballerina, confident and even-keeled, even as the narration jumps from an early twentieth century language of the Petersburg intelligentsia to the coarse, brutal language of refugees who may or may not be fleeing violence and persecution in their home villages.

And to personally editorialize, to add an element of competition to why Maidenhair in particular deserves to win this year’s BTBA rather than any of the other extremely well-qualified works of translation: I can say in all honesty that Maidenhair is the best Russian novel to come out in English since Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita exploded into the world’s consciousness in the mid-1960s.

Like many others before me, I have suffered an unvanquishable love of Rusisan literature ever since I took a Nineteenth Century Russian Literature course my freshman year at university. And I love it all now, all Russian literature: the grand Russian novels of ideas, the linguistic and stylistic revolutionaries of avant-garde poetry, the mystical philosopher-authors exploring the outer reaches of human existence, the brilliant and brave souls who dared to describe the absurdity of totalitarianism, be it tsarist, Soviet, capitalist . . . but I had been feeling at times like I’d reached the end of the Russian rope, that I’d made my way through all the great Russian works, and all I had left to content myself with were forgotten little gems that slipped between the cracks of the great Masters; but all the while I kept hoping beyond hope that somehow, someway, a contemporary Russian author would emerge to re-engage me with the history of Russian literature, to give hope to the written word in ways I thought I’d never feel again, not since I was introduced to that towering genius of twentieth century Russian letters, Bulgakov (and how wonderful and how tragic it is to be introduced to true works of creative genius like Master and Margarita, wonderful to know greatness on such a level, tragic in the knowledge that such works of genius stand alone, once you meet them, you have drastically winnowed down the number of life-changing novels remaining to be discovered, and nothing can replace the joy of discovery, of opening a novel for the first time not knowing by the end that it would completely change your life, that you would become a different, more fulfilled human being by the time you closed that novel. And yes, you can re-read, revisit, re-engage with these classics, these works of creative genius, and you can develop a deeper relationship between the text and the characters and the author behind it all, but you cannot replace the joy that comes from that first reading, the joy of discovery).

Maidenhair is the novel I have been waiting for; a powerful, moving novel that combines everything I love about literature in general, the beauty of language, the power of ideas, the love of characters, the genius of the Author as Master. I believe in the ability of the written word to change and transform physical reality outside of the textual vessel. I know I am not alone in these loves, these beliefs, and I know now that Russian literature is alive and well in so many ways, for there is an author who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest of Russian writers in history, who can craft the most beautifully-woven novels of ideas, because I have read Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, and I was able to feel it all again, the pure, unadulterated joy of discovery, of a truly great work of literary fiction, as if for the first time.

It is no exaggeration to describe Mikhail Shiskin as the greatest living Russian writer. Shishkin is already renowned in Russia as the first author to win all three of the big literary awards there: the Russian Booker, the Big Book, and the National Bestseller. I read and fell in love with Maidenhair before Shishkin withdrew from the official Russian delegation to the 2013 Book Expo America, in effect making him a dissident author. And if there is one thing history has shown, it is that the West loves dissident Russian literature. Think of the Russians who have won the Nobel Prize: Ivan Bunin (the most underrated of the great Russian authors, won the Nobel in 1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970), Joseph Brodsky (1987)—all officially dissidents, yet all deserving for the quality of their writing, the eternal nature of their ideas. Even before his recent political stance, Mikhail Shishkin was a worthy candidate for future Nobel laureate, and the appearance of Maidenhair in English translation started generating Nobel buzz immediately. Some say it takes a few works in English to catapult an author to global status worthy of Nobel recognition: Maidenhair is Shishkin’s first novel to appear in English, published by Open Letter Books, while his second English novel, The Light and the Dark, will be published by Quercus in November 2013. Shishkin’s Nobel future is unknown, his present candidacy for BTBA is more clear. He deserves to win, Maidenhair is a book of uncommon, exceptional genius, and its win would reserve its rightful place as the best translated book of 2012.

If this piece doesn’t convince you that Maidenhair should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, or if you can’t be bothered to read a 900-word love letter to Maidenhair, take the advice of the brilliant booksellers at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, they say what I am trying to say in far fewer words, with their own style of poetic genius:

31 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, which is translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz.

Maidenhair will be available to purchase from our very own Open Letter Books on October 23, 2012.

Here’s part of Will’s review:

Contemporary Russian literature all too often falls into a ghettoized section of world literature that keep fans of translated and international literature from fully enjoying the best works of the last twenty years. One problem is a tendency for Western sources to focus on the political elements in a Russian text that inevitably denigrates the quality of the literature itself. At the same time, too many scholars of Russian literature place contemporary Russian literature into a different ghetto altogether, with the predominant sentiment in American universities being that great Russian literature died once upon a time with Bulgakov or Pasternak. This fact is, of course, 100% not true. Both of these problems keep Russian literature from its proper place in discussions of world literature. We appreciate so many of the Russian classics as above politics and existent outside of but wholly influenced by the passage of historical time, while their themes are inherently but subtly political as they discuss the contradictions and distortions in the daily realities of the Russian society that combine to make the stories so timeless and powerful.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.

Click here to read the entire review.

31 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour |

“Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.”

Contemporary Russian literature all too often falls into a ghettoized section of world literature that keep fans of translated and international literature from fully enjoying the best works of the last twenty years. One problem is a tendency for Western sources to focus on the political elements in a Russian text that inevitably denigrates the quality of the literature itself. At the same time, too many scholars of Russian literature place contemporary Russian literature into a different ghetto altogether, with the predominant sentiment in American universities being that great Russian literature died once upon a time with Bulgakov or Pasternak. This fact is, of course, 100% not true. Both of these problems keep Russian literature from its proper place in discussions of world literature. We appreciate so many of the Russian classics as above politics and existent outside of but wholly influenced by the passage of historical time, while their themes are inherently but subtly political as they discuss the contradictions and distortions in the daily realities of the Russian society that combine to make the stories so timeless and powerful.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.

Since his first novel came out in 1994, Shishkin has won Russia’s three most prestigious literary prizes: the Russian Booker, the National Bestseller, and the Big Book. Despite his prodigious and award-winning talents, Maidenhair is his first novel published in English, and will be formally released on October 23, 2012 by Open Letter Books. Shishkin’s former day job was as an interpreter in Switzerland; and he splits his time these days between Zurich and Moscow – both facts play in to the characters in Maidenhair. He has previously taught for a semester at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, and is returning to the USA in spring 2013 to teach a seminar at Columbia and to give talks across the country relating to Maidenhair. The international nature of Shishkin himself plays in to the narrative structure of Maidenhair, as his characters inhabit positions across the globe and throughout history all at once; the émigré Russian writer of the past has given way to the globalized Russian writer of the 21st century, wherein borders are insignificant, the author is at once entirely Russian and at the same time entirely a global citizen.

At its core, Maidenhair is a novel of ideas that reads like a 21st-century Tolstoy, concerned with the big questions of life, death, love, and everything in between:

…here, in the trenches, people never talk out loud about the main thing. People smoke, drink, eat, and talk about trivial things, boots, for instance… (251)

Maidenhair is a novel that talks about the main things constantly: faith and spirituality; the importance of enjoying fleeting moments of beauty in the face of death; throughout, the quest for love, affection, and human ethics touches on every character, and make themselves apparent in philosophical dialogue, mythological references, and spiritual ruminations:

Life is a string and death is the air. A string makes no sound without air. (150)

Maidenhair is at the same time, like the great works of Russian literature, above politics and timeless. Its narrative grace and the power of its ideas would feel every bit at home in literary salons alongside Tolstoy and Chekhov 1902, though it was written a full century later.

To discuss the plot of Maidenhair feels vulgar. It is hard to describe and seemingly banal. But as Zakhar Prilepin (another incredible contemporary Russian author who is awaiting his first published translation in America) discussed at a recent Read Russia event at Book Expo America, the plots of the greatest works of Russian literature are all exceedingly banal: young man kills a pawnbroker and an investigation follows; a young woman cheats on her husband with a young officer. What makes these stories original is not their plot but the presentation of the author’s ideas and their critiques of social mores that exist at once across the globe. So it is with Maidenhair. The plot is, in fact, rather banal; four narratives are interwoven throughout the novel: stories told by Russian refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland to a Russian interpreter working for the Swiss government; the interpreter’s trips to Italy and his subsequent estrangement from his wife and son; letters written by the interpreter to his son, addressing him as an emperor of a far-off made-up land, all starting out with, “Dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!” and incorporating elements of historical and mythological texts the interpreter is reading on his breaks from work; and diary entries written by an Isabella on whom the interpreter was supposed to write a biography, who the not-so-average Western reader might not know is the famous Russian singer of the first half of the 20th-century, Isabella Yurieva*.

The interpreter is the only character that ties the four narratives together. The reader lives inside the nameless interpreter’s head, with the narratives combining throughout as a mixture of things that he is reading at the time (a lot of mythology and classical history), things he is working on (including the diary entries and the extensive Q&A sections with asylum-seekers), and things he is doing (trips to Italy, writing letters to his son). The style is confusing to discuss, but easy to read, because Shishkin repeats the themes of humanity’s interconnectedness throughout history and fate.

You just have to understand destiny’s language and its cooing. We’re blind from birth. We don’t see anything and don’t pick up on the connection between events, the oneness of things, like a mole digging its tunnel… (268)

Rather than discuss the plot structure and the “action” in the book, so as not to give away any of the brilliance in the text, it must be said that Maidenhair is a novel not to be understood (to use Shishkin’s own quote), but to be felt at every turn of the page, a novel to be processed as the narrative progresses, though the further you read, the less time matters, and you find yourself living inside a narrative world where everything is connected, and everything is happening all at once:

Before I just couldn’t understand how all this could be happening to me simultaneously, but I am now, loupe in hand, and at the same time I’m there, holding him close and feeling that I’m about to pass out, dying, I can’t catch my breath. But now I understand that it’s all so simple. Everything is always happening simultaneously. Here you are writing this line now, while I’m reading it. Here you are putting a period at the end of this sentence, while I reach it at the very same time. It’s not a matter of hands on the clock! They can be moved forward and back. It’s a matter of time zones. Steps of the dial. Everything is happening simultaneously, it’s just that the hands have gone every which way on all the clocks. (497)

Shishkin has declared in Russian-language interviews that Maidenhair is a novel about everything, and in more recent novels he attempts to solve humanity’s crisis of life and death. Maidenhair is no different.

This is what I believe: If somewhere on earth the wounded are finished off with rifle butts, that means somewhere else people have to be singing and rejoicing in life! The more death there is around, the more important to counter it with life, love, and beauty! (328)

Everything in the book makes sense together, even when reading and the narrative shifts from the singer’s diary in the 1920s to the interpreter’s mystical Q&A session with a refugee to Rome and to letters, everything is connected to the greater whole of what Shishkin is attempting to create, an entire universe of beauty, of yearning for love, of life in the face of death, of the history in everything, all tied in to the much greater questions of God’s role in everything:

The divine idea of the river is the river itself. (24)

The title of the book is emblematic of Shishkin’s themes of God and love at the same time: maidenhair is a type of fern that grows wild in Rome, the Eternal City that plays such a central role in the novel. Yet in Russia, maidenhair is a house plant that cannot grow without human care and affection:

For us, this is a house plant, otherwise it wouldn’t survive, without human warmth, but here it’s a weed. So you see, this is in a dead language, signifying something alive: Adiantum capillus veneris. Venus hair, genus Adiantum. Maidenhair. God of life. The wind barely stirs. As if nodding, yes yes, that’s true: this is my temple, my land, my wind, my life. The greenest of grasses. It grew here before your Eternal City and will grow here after. (500)

Even the epigraph to Maidenhair is so significant to the work that it deserves to be quoted, for it contains the essence of what Shishkin is up to:

And your ashes will be called, and will be told:

“Return that which does not belong to you;

reveal what you have kept to this time.”

For by the word was the world created, and by the word shall we be resurrected.

–Revelation of Baruch ben Neriah. 4, XLII

The theme of the word is one of the big themes that recur throughout Maidenhair in each narrative, with the importance of the recorded dialogue in the interpreter’s mission or in the diary entries of Isabella. The themes are complex and deep, but the sentiments expressed in them, the emotion of the characters that come through in the text, are all human and completely relatable. The most important themes that are discussed throughout the work include God (faith and spirituality), fate (and the individual), time (and time/space), war (across time and history), history (or the power of memory), diaspora (especially interesting as Shishkin spends much of his time outside of Russia, yet remains a quintessentially Russian writer), intertextuality (as a narrative and rhetorical style, and for the novel’s use of text-in-text-in-text), Russia’s role in the world (and their view of themselves in the world), the role of art in human society (the power of beauty to transcend the mundane day-to-day), migration/immigration (and the connection to paradise myths), mythology (of all stripes), Rome (after all, it is the Eternal City, so emblematic of humanity’s Eternal Problems) . . . The list could go on forever, the themes are huge, the book is a page-turner, not in the sense of plot-twists, but in the sense that every page contains a new revelation.

May I make one recommendation to you, the future reader of this brilliant novel? If so, please be an active reader while you read this book: keep a pen in hand, Post-It notes at the ready, or your e-book highlighting function at the ready, because every single page in this book contains ideas encapsulated in perfect quotes that you will want to revisit, along with the entirety of the novel, time and time again.

Maidenhair is the first Russian book of the 21st-century to appear in English translation that can be truly counted as an instant classic in the broad field of world literature, capable of being taught in university classrooms and discussed in book clubs for centuries to come. Every individual, every emotion, every idea that humanity has ever generated and will forever generate is encapsulated in the 500 pages of Maidenhair. With its perfect combination of style and substance, Maidenhair might just be the book you’ve been waiting your entire life to read.

*Editor’s note: The original review post listed Isabella Yurieva’s name incorrectly as Isabella St. George.

31 May 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Next week, Book Expo America, “North America’s premier meeting of book trade professionals,” will take over the Javits Center in NYC. This year’s guest of honor at BEA is none other than RUSSIA, your humble author’s area of beloved expertise, and Russia will be the focus of a TON of super-cool events/panels/readings/parties as well as the “2012 Global Markets Forum” (aka: the business of books in and out of Russia, including my favorite Russian indie publisher, Ad Marginem Press!) all between June 2-7 as part of BEA’s READ RUSSIA 2012 initiative.

According to the fine folks at READ RUSSIA: “Russia’s 4,000-square-foot BEA exhibition space at the Javits Center will host presentations for industry professionals on the Russian book market, Russian literature in translation, and new works by Russian writers, publishers, historians, and journalists.”

Open Letter’s own Mikhail Shishkin, whose incredible English-language debut, Maidenhair, comes out October 13, will be one of the many contemporary Russian writers present at BEA. He’s part of a panel at 4:30 on Wednesday with Andrei Gelasimov, and will sit in on the presentation of the “Big Book” (Bol’shaya Kniga) Award Thursday at 10am.

Shishkin will also be doing a discussion with translator-extraordinaire Marian Schwartz and Open Letter publishing wizard Chad Post, hosted by The Bridge Series at McNally Jackson Books in SoHo on Thursday night at 7pm. So come and hang out with the Open Letter family at any of these awesome events and meet Shishkin, who is, from all accounts, a hilarious and awesome dude who speaks highly fluent English, so you don’t have to suffer through one of those awkward translator-trying-to-make-jokes-work moments. The good times will fly free.

Also, check out this bad boy under the Russian “Writers at BEA: Featured Writers” section:

WRITERS AT BEA

Featured Writers

Look familiar? Oh yeah, that’s not Mikhail Shishikin, nor is it Zakhar Prilepin, Dmitry Bykov, or any of the contemporary writers who will actually be at BEA, it’s our old friend Aleksandr Pushkin, who of course died 200 years ago, and who will only be present at BEA in the form of a tattooed portrait on my arm, but whose birthday we will allllll be celebrating on Wednesday in “true Russian fashion” (you can guess what that means)!

But READ RUSSIA is a killer endeavor, filling the streets of NYC with some of the greatest living Russian writers (especially Shishkin and the mustachio’d Bykov and the intensity-in-ten-cities Prilepin, but I really really wish Mikhail Elizarov were there!), and giving the publishing world a much-needed glimpse into the Russia beyond the classics and outside of the overtly political commentary in Western media and literature about the country.

Check out a full list of READ RUSSIA events all over NYC here or a list of all Russian-related events at BEA here.

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Russia Beyond the Headlines has a great piece about (and interview with) Mikhail Shishkin, the only Russian novelist to have won have won the Russian Booker, Big Book, and National Bestseller awards, and whose Maidenhair is coming out from Open Letter this summer in Marian Schwartz’s translation.

Shishkin has been compared to numerous great writers, including Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce. He laughs at critics’ need to find literary similarities, but admits that Chekhov has been influential, along with Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Bunin, from whom Shishkin said he learned not to compromise as an author. “If you say to yourself ‘I will write for such-and-such a readership’ – you immediately stop being a writer and become a servant,” Shishkin said in explanation.

According to Shishkin, the literary accolades that continue to greet his novels confirm “what was important to you is also important to someone else.”

Marian Schwartz has just finished translating the award-winning “Maidenhair,” first published in Russian in 2006. The novel draws on Shishkin’s own experience of working as an interpreter for asylum seekers in the Swiss immigration office.

“Shishkin’s is a voice I not only can hear in English but also find very amenable to being transformed into English. I’m very excited that readers here, too, are going to have the chance to hear it now,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz describes the book as “extremely ambitious and daring, but ultimately tremendously rewarding.” She admits that translating it was a challenge.

“I remember all too well how confusing it was the first time I read it. Shishkin’s array of voices is dizzying in the best kind of way,” she said

Translation of this rich and allusive novel was further complicated by extensive literary references ranging from Xenephon to Agatha Christie, as well as by neologisms and wordplay, including “an entire page that is at least half palindromes.”

YES to all of this. And unless something goes haywire, he’s going to be in the States right around the time of BookExpo America for a series of readings and other events to promote the launch of Maidenhair.

And I know this is a long excerpt from the interview RBTH did with Shishkin, but I think it’s well worth it, and that these few answers will excite any and all literature fans reading this post:

Russia Beyond the Headlines:You seem to be a writer for whom linguistic concerns are crucial. Do you think this makes translating your work particularly challenging?

Mikhail Shishkin: If you’ve read my books, then you know that the problems of love, death, human dignity, brutality, humiliation are all no less important for me than the linguistic aspects of prose. Text is only the means. Simply, it has long been the case that you can’t say anything with the usual words; they lead nowhere. You have to pave your own unique road. Of course, some things vanish in translation – word games, rhymes – but there are things that are translatable and understandable in all languages​​, for example, the need for love. Words are glass. You need to look not at the glass, but through it to God’s world. Words, like glass, exist so that light can pass through them.

RBTH: You have said that a writer’s language should diverge from the norm. Can you say a bit more about what you meant by this?

M.S.: Would you be interested in reading a novel constructed wholly according to the textbook of how to speak and write correctly? Imagine a play entirely built of phrases from an Anglo-Russian phrasebook for tourists? It would drive you crazy! The art of prose writing consists of irregularities. There are no rules. No one can explain why one incorrect phrase can be simply wrong, and another – in the work of Brodsky or Alexander Goldstein – becomes a great line.

RBTH: You have been compared to Nabokov, Chekhov and Joyce, among others. Are there any writers you feel have particularly influenced you?

M.S.: It’s funny that critics have to compare an author to someone or other. It’s interesting. Who did Pushkin get compared with? Or Tolstoy? With age the past itself changes, and the literary influences. Previously I would have answered the question about who influenced me, thus: Sasha Sokolov, Max Frisch, Nabokov. But now it seems to me that Tolstoy, Chekhov, [Ivan] Bunin exerted the most important influences on me. Bunin taught me not to compromise, and to go on believing in myself. Chekhov passed on his sense of humanity – that there can’t be any wholly negative characters in your text. And from Tolstoy I learned not to be afraid of being naïve.

RBTH: Which contemporary writers do you find interesting?

M.S.: Definitely, Alexander Goldstein. Sadly, this writer died a few years ago. Literary critics will all one day call us his contemporaries. Russian authors write beautiful texts: Vladimir Sharov’s “Rehearsals,” Dmitry Ragozin’s “Battlefield,” Maya Kucherskaya’s “Modern Paterik.”

15 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Fr. Grant Barber’s piece on Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov, which is translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz and published by AmazonCrossing.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for us, as well as being a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

Thirst is a really interesting book, due in part to the fact that Marian Schwartz is such a brilliant translator. Her list of accolades is intense: recipient of two translation fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, past president of the American Literary Translators Association, translator of Nina Berberova, 12 Who Don’t Agree, Oblomov, The White Guard, and A Hero of Our Time among many, many others. Her translation of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair will be coming out from Open Letter next summer.

Here’s the opening of Grant’s review:

Gelasimov embraces the “show, don’t tell” dictum effectively throughout this short novel from the unique start. The first person narrator, later identified as Constantine or Kostya, has just returned to his home and is trying to fit a lot of bottles of vodka into his refrigerator, and on the window sill, on the floor, in the bathroom and clothes hamper. He’s planning a bender after having done some sort of work, work he’d completed to buy vodka. There’s a knock at the door from his neighbor, a single mother:

I would share more, but you have to read the whole thing to get the full impact of the extended quote that follows this paragraph.

15 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Gelasimov embraces the “show, don’t tell” dictum effectively throughout this short novel from the unique start. The first person narrator, later identified as Constantine or Kostya, has just returned to his home and is trying to fit a lot of bottles of vodka into his refrigerator, and on the window sill, on the floor, in the bathroom and clothes hamper. He’s planning a bender after having done some sort of work, work he’d completed to buy vodka. There’s a knock at the door from his neighbor, a single mother:

“I’m sorry to bother you again,” she said. “My Nikita’s acting up. Please help me out this once. I can’t cope with him myself.”

“No problem,” I said.

I threw on my jacket and went out. I even left my door open.

“Well then, who here doesn’t want to go to bed?”

The little guy shuddered and stared at me as if I were a ghost. He actually dropped his blocks.

“Who here isn’t listening to his mama?”

He was looking at me, speechless. Only his eyes got big as saucers.

“Come on, get your things,” I said. “Since you don’t want to listen to your mama you’re going to be living with me. You get to take one toy.”

He was absolutely speechless, and his mouth was very wide open.

[. . .]

He shifted his eyes to Olga and whispered:

“I’ll go to bed. Mama, I’ll go to bed all by myself right away.”

[. . .]

Then she said, “You’ll have to forgive me for bothering you all the time. It’s just that he . . . you’re the only person he’s afraid of. He stopped listening to me completely.”

I grunted.

“Makes sense. I would’ve been even more afraid if I were him.”

[. . .]

At home I walked over to the mirror and stood in front of it a long time. I looked at what had become of me.

If only Seryoga hadn’t been wrong back then and hadn’t left me to burn up last in the APC. But he thought I was done for. That’s why he pulled the others out first. The ones who still were showing signs of life.

Which means I’m only good for frightening little boys right now.

This whole opening series of events sets up all that is to come: difficult childhoods, especially of Kostya, focused on his philandering and volatile father and an uncaring world; the set piece of boy Koysta hoisting himself up onto the operating table while suffering from acute appendicitis, and within the hectoring presence of the surgeon illustrates well what sort of world he grew up in. We hear about his service in the Soviet Army fighting the Chechens, and the loyalty the surviving soldiers share with one another, as well as the conflicts between them, past and present. We keep returning to this past, especially the attack that left Kostya’s face so disfigured by burns, in an unfolding series of flashbacks.

Three further dynamics play out. First, the young student Kostya was bored in school which lead to his “doodling,” and discovery by the failed-artist head master of Kostya as a naturally gifted artist. This alcoholic headmaster brings Kostya to his home to skip school and draw, although Kostya has only ability, no sense of refinement or sense of beauty. This is another failed father figure in his life. Second, two of his army comrades interrupt the start of his three month bender to enlist his help in finding a third, missing friend. This quest ultimately is inconsequential as a quest, but does set up Kostya’s break from isolation and pattern of work to drink. Third, Kostya reconnects with his father, his new wife, and younger children. Dad hasn’t changed, but the rapport Kostya develops with the wife, and more importantly the two half-siblings, returns Kostya to his drawing.

By the end of the novel his somewhat estranged-from-one-another friends have reached a truce. Kostya has stood up to his father. Kostya has begun drawing—creating—people from his past as restored in an alternative reality: a dead soldier now with wife and children, another who lost his leg now with two working legs. Kostya ends the novel with a drawing of a face—his own, undamaged true self—showing it to Olga and Nikita, and Nikita’s spoken insight that Kostya only looks like a monster.

In some ways, explained this way, Thirst might come off as almost formulaic. Maybe archetypal is the better label of the arc that shows the rebirth of an injured man into real adulthood as well as moving toward reintegration through art, with all of this inner reality mirrored by the recognitions of people surrounding him.

Gelasimov does this with pared down language, effective weaving of past and present, grounding in the particulars of unique place and time, with consistency of voice and narrative pacing. He has taken what might be clunky and predictable in other’s hands and made a work of art. He doesn’t waste a word, an image, a story, but weaves them into a related whole. This is a novel to reread, to see how well everything fits together, to marvel at how images and incidents reflect and inform each other. Gelasimov doesn’t use lyrical, “poetic” language, but he has written a work with the concision of poetry.

17 November 11 | Chad W. Post |

Don’t mean to play favorites here, but to be honest, in my opinion, Marian Schwartz is one of the smartest, most talented translators working today. Especially in terms of Russian translation. And retranslation. In recent years, she’s translated Envy by Yuri Olesha, Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, and I know of an unpublished version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

The real reason I chose to feature Marian today though is to congratulate her on winning this year’s AATSEEL Award for Best Translation into English for her translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, which came out from Yale University Press. (As a sidenote, one of my interns is preparing a review of this which should run in the next few weeks.)

Marian is also a former president of ALTA, a great speaker on all things translation (she gave a couple killer presentations here at the U of R—including a great speech on retranslations), and a very encouraging, very engaged, very realistic reader, translator, and thinker . . . Personally, I think all young translators should spend some time with her if at all possible—Marian would be an excellent mentor.

Anyway, gushing aside, here are her answers and comments:

Best Translation that You’ve Done to Date: The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories by Nina Berberova

Since I have my issues with Russians and their lack of understanding of copyright issues, I want to share a brief story (which I’m hopefully not screweing up too bad) Marian told me about Berberova. Back when Marian’s first translations of Berberova were about to come out, she got a gall from Berberova in which Berberova was all excited about all the different places publishing her story. “It’s going to be in here, and also here, and here. . . . “ In Russia, more is obviously better and legal conventions be damned!

Book that Needs to Be Published in English Translation: Cranes and Pygmies by Leonid Yuzefovich, and The Man Who Couldn’t Die by Olga Slavnikova

This is a sort of perfect response. Not necessarily for the choices themselves, but for the googleability of the translations. As it turns out Cranes and Pygmies — which won the Big Book Award — is one of the projects Marian’s currently working on and you can read a sample by clicking here.

And an excerpt from The Man Who Couldn’t Die appeared in Word Without Borders.

15 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Every year, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the foundation “Elementarteilchen” award the International Literature Award to the best book translated into German. This year, they gave the prize (25,000 Euro for the author and 10,000 for the translator) to Mikhail Shishkin and Andreas Tretner for the translation of Venushaar Maidenhair, available from DVA.

There are a few things about this particular award that really interest me:

1) We’re publishing Maidenhair next fall in Marian Schwartz’s translation, so kudos to us!

2) The description of this award is really interesting:

The award spotlights the diversity of contemporary lilterature around the world and the intercultural mediation performed by translators – a function that is increasingly important in a globalized society.

The prize is awarded to contemporary literary narrators who are outstanding in the international world of literature production and whose work is characterized by thematic diversity and new literary forms. Hence, the award is also an instrument of cultural policy, dedicated to the translation aspect of global cultural output and promoting interplay between international literature and a ‘literary canon’ still perceived from a national point of view.

3) I think it’s interesting how many European countries (see earlier post about the European Translation Prize) have large prizes for literature in translation.

4) The shortlist for this particular award is solid, and includes Zone, another Open Letter title (double kudos!):

José Eduardo Agualusa: Barroco tropical
A1 Verlag 2011, translated from the Portuguese by Michael Kegler

Joanna Bator: Sandberg
Suhrkamp Verlag 2011, translated from the Polish by Esther Kinsky

Edwidge Danticat: Der verlorene Vater
Edition Büchergilde 2010, translated from the English by Susann Urban

Mathias Énard: Zone“
Bloomsbury/Berlin-Verlag 2010 , translated from the French by Holger Fock and Sabine Müller

Elias Khoury: Yalo
Suhrkamp Verlag 2011, translated from the Arabic by Leila Chammaa

Michail Schischkin: Venushaar
Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt 2011, translated from the Russian by Andreas Tretner

Congrats to Shishkin, Andreas Tretner, DVA, and all the other shortlisted authors and translators.

And for more info about Maidenhair (which may well be available for next year’s Russia-centric BEA and possibly a Shiskin visit to the States), here’s an excerpt from a great post by Lisa Hayden Espenschade from her blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf:

If forced to summarize, I’d say Maidenhair is an omnibus of life – or maybe Life – that presents full ranges of pain and joy, simplicity and complexity, truth and fiction, love and war, and, of course, Mars and Venus. Maidenhair is relentlessly literary, with references to mythology and history that cross timelines and borders, but it is also relentlessly readable, even suspenseful, if you’re willing to accept its flow. [. . .]

A richly stitched, multi-layered homage to the coexistence of love and death. (NB: Without Woody Allen.) One other thing: Maidenhair also reminds that we, along with the stories we live and tell, repeat, like doubles. Shishkin reinforces the importance of our written stories in several ways. Characters mention written records and repeat old stories (I’m not telling). And the interpreter visits the remains of St. Cyril, co-creator of Cyrillic, in Rome, because those letters mean so much to him. Rome, as Eternal City, by the way, plays an important role in Maidenhair. So do belly buttons.

Yes, Maidenhair lacks a single unified plot and its story threads, knitted together by history, chance, and archetypes, sometimes wander. A lot, which can make the reading challenging but very rewarding. Two characters anchor the novel: a Russian speaker who interprets immigration interviews for Swiss authorities and a female singer named Izabella. We read Q&A sessions, we read of the interpreter’s family problems, and we read Izabella’s intermittent diaries, where we witness her growth from gushing teenager to a wife resigned to a husband’s infidelities.

5 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday’s Boston Globe has a nice interview with Marian Schwartz, one of the great contemporary translators, whose translation of Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 was recently released. (Here’s a link to K.E. Semmel’s review of 2017 that we ran last week.)

Q. What is a good translation?

A. I think a translation is considered “good’’ when the reader likes it, even if it’s tough going. Bulgakov’s “White Guard,” for example, was known for years in the Glenny translation, which was a pleasure to read but had little to do with the original text and omitted crucial bits; everyone but Slavists loved it. I hope that my new translation reproduces the full range of devices and effects of the original. Incidentally, our capacity — and willingness — to appreciate difficult texts seems to have changed, particularly for canonical texts.

Q. In what way?

A. I think we’ve become more receptive to foreign elements. Constance Garnett, whom I will defend to the end of my days, is now criticized for not being faithful to Tolstoy’s text, for setting his books in what feels like an English garden, but in my view it cannot be bad when a translation gives people access to works that they would never otherwise have read. As I was saying, though, our taste for foreignness has increased. A simple example: 50 years ago, names of Chinese characters were translated — “Peach Blossom’’ and the like — whereas now the preference is for the transliterated Chinese names. There is an ongoing debate among translators about “foreignizing’’ and “domestication,’’ but wherever a translator’s choice falls, today it will probably be closer to foreignizing than it would have been 50 years ago.

30 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by K.E. Semmel on Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, which is translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (one of our favorite translators) and published by Overlook.

K.E. Semmel is the Publications & Communications Manager of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. His translations of the work of Danish authors Simon Fruelund, Pia Tafdrup, and Jytte Borberg have been published or are forthcoming in numerous literary journals. He’s the recipient of translation grants from the Danish Arts Council. And his review makes this sound really interesting:

It’s hard not to think of twentieth-century Russian history as you crack open 2017, Olga Slavnikova’s Russian Booker Prize winning novel. The year 2017 will mark, of course, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which culminated in the collapse of the Czarist autocracy and gave rise to the Soviet Union. It’s against this backdrop that readers enter this novel: a pot brimming with precious stones, a dash of spy novel intrigue, and a raw-to-the-bone social critique bubbling and boiling in a dense, evocative stew.

Excuse the metaphor. This is not a novel of food—far from it. But 2017 is a novel that asks you to savor it slowly, bite by bite. Translator Marian Schwartz, one of the most accomplished Russian translators working today—who has translated the works of Nina Berberova, Edvard Radzinsky, and Mikhail Bulgakov, among others—has recreated Slavnikova’s dense novel in a smooth, eminently enjoyable English text. Passages describing the craft of obscure trades like gemcutting or rock-hounding flow from sentence to sentence with ease, making the translation seem effortless.

At its core, 2017 is a deceptively simple novel that explores the notion of authenticity in a modern life. In the mythical region of the Riphean Mountains, a gifted gem cutter named Krylov meets a woman named Tanya who, unbeknownst to him, happens to be the wife of his rich but humorless mentor, the professor and gem trader Anfilogov. Krylov and Tanya begin a torrid affair that finds them in new beds each time they meet. Meanwhile Krylov’s ex-wife, Tamara, a wealthy and powerful funeral director who still has her eyes set on Krylov, enters the picture and thinks it’s about time she and Krylov get back together again. And what about that rotund spy trailing Tanya and Krylov’s every move? Well, he may or may not have been hired by Tamara to keep track of their affair.

Click here to read the entire review.

30 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s hard not to think of twentieth-century Russian history as you crack open 2017, Olga Slavnikova’s Russian Booker Prize winning novel. The year 2017 will mark, of course, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which culminated in the collapse of the Czarist autocracy and gave rise to the Soviet Union. It’s against this backdrop that readers enter this novel: a pot brimming with precious stones, a dash of spy novel intrigue, and a raw-to-the-bone social critique bubbling and boiling in a dense, evocative stew.

Excuse the metaphor. This is not a novel of food—far from it. But 2017 is a novel that asks you to savor it slowly, bite by bite. Translator Marian Schwartz, one of the most accomplished Russian translators working today—who has translated the works of Nina Berberova, Edvard Radzinsky, and Mikhail Bulgakov, among others—has recreated Slavnikova’s dense novel in a smooth, eminently enjoyable English text. Passages describing the craft of obscure trades like gemcutting or rock-hounding flow from sentence to sentence with ease, making the translation seem effortless.

At its core, 2017 is a deceptively simple novel that explores the notion of authenticity in a modern life. In the mythical region of the Riphean Mountains, a gifted gem cutter named Krylov meets a woman named Tanya who, unbeknownst to him, happens to be the wife of his rich but humorless mentor, the professor and gem trader Anfilogov. Krylov and Tanya begin a torrid affair that finds them in new beds each time they meet. Meanwhile Krylov’s ex-wife, Tamara, a wealthy and powerful funeral director who still has her eyes set on Krylov, enters the picture and thinks it’s about time she and Krylov get back together again. And what about that rotund spy trailing Tanya and Krylov’s every move? Well, he may or may not have been hired by Tamara to keep track of their affair.

2017 is, in short, a playfully fun novel that uses farcical elements and outlandish, oversized characters to beguile you into reading further. For instance, in one particularly fun sentence, Dickens-like in its wit, we get the following description of the spy: “His mustache looked like it had been drawn on by a graffiti artist provoked by all the blank space on his face.”

But behind the farce there’s some serious stuff going on. In a geographically isolated northern region of the country where some of the very best deposits of precious stones are found, people, animals, and vegetation are dying because of a cyanide leak. Just why this is so—and just who is to blame for the leak—is what ultimately propels the novel’s plot.

In the post-Soviet society Slavnikova envisions, it seems most everyone is out to make a quick buck. Take Professor Anfilogov, for example, who is driven to accumulate wealth despite the fact that, once he has it, he has no real use for it. Or Krylov’s ex-wife Tamara, whose funeral business rakes in the dough until an environmental scandal breaks, revealing just how she got her money in the first place. (And yes, the scandal’s got something to do with why everything’s dying up north.) Only Krylov the gem cutter—a man with some real inertia issues—seems immune to the pull of easy wealth.

But along with wealth comes power, and this is where the novel makes its deepest cut into post-Soviet (and potentially all) structures of power. Here is Tamara lecturing Krylov:

“You and I are having a material conversation now,” Tamara pulled him up sharp. “No matter how important what you’re not telling me is, what I’m going to tell you now is much more important. You and your Anfilogov have a special kind of business. The issue is not whether it’s legal or illegal. The problem is that you want to go it alone. I mean all your friends who used to come over when we were renting that little place on Kuznechnaya and then stopped coming over. I want you to be clear about one thing: today, everyone belongs to someone, and you’re doing everything in your power not to. All people and all businesses are part of a single world molecule. This molecule is a lot simpler than the most primitive human individuality. . . . Even inside the molecule the upper levels are much more primitive than the lower ones. You can’t even imagine how crude, coarse, and simple-minded the functions are at the highest stages of power, where I’ve only had a peek.”

Though it might be too tempting to see everything here through the lens of power (of the Soviet kind), particularly when the Red Cavalry and White Cossacks engage in deadly skirmishes on the 100th anniversary of the Revolution, it’s not at all a stretch to view the unfolding plot in post-Glasnost terms. The question of who is to blame for the mess up north becomes central. Was Tamara the one responsible for the environmental disaster? Or should blame be held against the authorities who, as Tamara claims, “knew about the cyanide leak . . . and did absolutely nothing!”?

But if you look closely for simple answers in 2017, you won’t find them. Throughout the novel the same question of authenticity is raised by various means and by various characters, ultimately pointing to what is really at stake in the year 2017. Whether it’s the transparency of rainbow quartz, or the authenticity of a well-lived human life, or even the authenticity of history itself, 2017 examines the difficult problem of achieving authenticity in a modern capitalist state. And by doing so, Slavnikova gives a dose of humanity to the characters who inhabit her fictional world. Though she can be a little heavy on description at times, Slavnikova is a gifted writer with a talent for weaving the disparate threads of her expansive narrative together, and with Schwartz’s able hand bringing this novel to life in English, readers should enjoy this book as they would enjoy a fine meal: slowly and thoughtfully.

17 March 09 | N. J. Furl | Comments

With our Politics of Translation event coming up next Monday, this seems like a good time to post the video of a different event that we hosted last fall.

As part of the Reading the World Conversation Series, this “Translators’ Roundtable” brought together four literary translators—who work in a variety of languages and genres—to discuss their experiences. The conversation explored a number of different topics, from how they got started as translators, to the obstacles of retranslating classic works, to translating film scripts during the writers’ strike, etc.

In attendance were Michael Emmerich, Edward Gauvin, Marian Schwartz, and Martha Tennent. There’s a lot of brilliant discussion here—one of my favorite points coming from Michael who makes a case to those who lean on the phrase “Lost in Translation” that it is, instead, and “100% gain.”


Translators’ Roundtable from Open Letter Books on Vimeo.

15 December 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

The Ukrainians and the Russians both claim Bulgakov as one of their own:

The identity crisis arises it seems because although Bulgakov was born in what is now Ukraine’s capital, a city he immortalized in his first novel The White Guard, the playwright and novelist was ethnically Russian, wrote in Russian and moved to Moscow when he was 21. So, while in a recent poll of Russians, the author of The Master and the Margharita was named the country’s second greatest writer, in similar poll in Ukraine, he was claimed as Ukraine’s third best playwright. The mixed opinions on nationality aren’t any less muddy elsewhere in the world of letters. Take, for example, Bernard Shaw – described as an Irish dramatist despite living in England most of his life – or Polish-born Tom Stoppard, who is nearly always referred to as a British playwright.

I don’t know what occasioned this little article in the Guardian, but what occasioned my post about the article is Marian Schwartz’s excellent new translation of The White Guard, which one should definitely buy.

18 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at PRI’s World Books, Bill Marx has a really interesting podcast interview with Marian Schwartz, whose retranslation of Bulgakov’s The White Guard was recently released by Yale University Press. (Bill Marx also put together a special White Guard related Geo Quiz.)

The interview is really interesting, touching on why people should read The White Guard in addition to The Master and Margarita, what some of the issues were with the previous translation, and, on a related note, how onomatopoeia works in the new version.

This isn’t the only new translation Schwartz has coming out this year—in October Seven Stories will release her retranslation of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov.

I’m looking forward to getting my hands on both of these titles, and we’ll definitely review them as soon as possible.

On a related note, Marian Schwartz will be here in Rochester on October 1st to participate in a translator’s roundtable (which will be recorded and posted here) in part to talk about the opportunities and challenges of retranslating classics.

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