3 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Along with about, well, everyone else in the northeast, I’m snowed into my apartment today, so instead of answering the phones at Open Letter (HA! no one ever calls us), I’m at home, working on our forthcoming anthology of Spanish literature, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, and, as a break of sorts, I thought I’d put together our monthly list of books worth checking out. (For past versions, including one with a rant about my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind group, just click here.)

For the past few years, every December/January, we’ve been posting a series of “Best of the Year!” podcasts—on fiction, on nonfiction, on movies, on music (my personal favorite podcast)—along with resolutions about what Open Letter/Three Percent/me personally would like to accomplish in the forthcoming year. (See last year’s post in which my number 1 resolution was to “Drink more mimosas!” Speaking of, it is a snow day, I do have some left over booze . . . )

Over the next few weeks, we’ll probably maybe get right back on that. I hesitate only because I’ve read around about 10 million year end lists over the past few weeks, each of which was, by necessity, incomplete and incapable of addressing its incompleteness and the biases underpinning that. (I even read this article about Largehearted Boy’s “List of Year End Lists.”) Thanks to Facebook and the success of all those awful click-driven, shitty websites named in this article on The Year We Broke the Internet, social media exposes us every moment of every day to absurd list after absurd list.

Which isn’t just annoying, but in the opinions of some (self included), pretty much a horrible thing for the world as a whole. (For more on Morozov, I highly recommend checking out this profile. And he lost 100 lbs on a rowing machine watching European art-house films? That’s the exercise regime I need to sign up for.)

But there’s something so compelling about seeing information in this way . . . It’s like numbered, or at least ordered, compilations of information tap right into the reptilian part of our brain and spew out all the morphine feelings. Jason Diamond’s ridiculous Top 10 List of Literary Snobs? I MUST HAVE IT. And hey look! I’m number 3!! WEEE!!

At the same time, we live in a world of way too much information. As awesome as this seems to techno-utopians, it’s pretty much fucking up our brains. (Obviously, that’s the scientific conclusion.) As I sit here, at my kitchen table, I have 20 tabs open on my browser—ranging from information about car batteries to Facebook to The Guardian’s ‘definitive’ list of 1000 books to read to Pitchfork’s list of upcoming albums to ESPN’s Soccer section—Spotify is playing one of the 596 tracks I pulled out as my “favorites of 2013,” to go along with the 5,000 more from 2010 onwards, and I’m staring right into my “to read” bookshelf (not to be confused with the “already read” and “probably going to die before I get there” bookshelves) that has 103 titles on it. And, no surprise, in between sentences, I’m getting my ass kicked at Words With Friends by both Tom Roberge and Steven Rosato. There’s too much going on.

None of which is news to anyone.

And like a lot of people, one of my personal resolutions for 2014 is to fuck as much of this shit as I can and live in the real world for more than 15 minutes at a time without checking Twitter for the latest witty hashtag meme (#AddAWordRuinAMovie) or international football scores. OK, that’s going too far. Football scores are still allowed.

I don’t want to just do my “old man screaming at the goddamn trees to get off his yard” rant though. The thing is, I kind of can’t live without all this stuff. Professionally. Without blog culture, I would never have “published” anything. Without email and Facebook and the rest of it, only a handful of people would ever have heard of Open Letter’s books.

What I wonder is if there’s a better, more effective way of providing readers with useful information. I started these monthly overviews because a) I wanted to pull out and highlight books that could get lost in somewhat overwhelming Translation Database and b) I wanted to make jokes.

This time of year always makes me a bit reflective . . . Not to mention that I take all of this a little too personally (result of being almost 40, having worked in this thankless business for 12-plus years, and chronic self-doubt) and get totally bummed when not a single Open Letter book shows up on the Quarterly Conversation Favorite Reads of 2013 lists. (SPOILER ALERT: All you’ll find behind that link is The Most Experimental Dalkey Archive Books and Seiobo There Below.)

For now, I’m not sure if there’s a better way to provide readers with information on forthcoming translations. My current mix of jokes and titles is probably not smarmy enough to go viral, and not smart enough to serve as a legitimate place to check for recommendations. (Surprise! Three Percent is not the Times Literary Supplement.) I’ll keep thinking about it over the course of the year though, and hopefully along the way we’ll provide some interesting recommendations. (And starting next month maybe we’ll say something about the books themselves. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the listicle sites, it’s that content is totally and utterly irrelevant.)

And with that, I’m ready to announce Resolution #1: No More Writing about BuzzFeed/Flavorwire and the Reasons They Annoy Me. Down with lists and resolutions! Long live lists and resolutions!

The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield (Quercus)

Resolution #2: Write More Reviews.

Every year I make the same promise—to do more reviewing—and then fail miserably. Out of the 112 books I read last year, I wrote reviews of what, four? Five? That’s pathetic. My goal is at least two a month, preferably three. And The Light and the Dark will be one of these.

(Although when I do review this, I’ll have to make a disclaimer that there is a LOT of bad blood between me and Quercus, over Shishkin’s work in particular. And thank god Shish got himself a new agent. Read into that all you will.)

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro, translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett (And Other Stories)

Resolution #3: Sell a Lot More Books.

So, here’s some breaking news for everyone: As of June 1st, Open Letter will be distributed by Consortium. This is fantastic news for everyone involved. This should make it easier for us to get our books into East Coast and Midwest stores (the West Coast has been doing great by us, thanks to George Carroll’s efforts), and frees up some time for us to work at promoting our books.

Aside from the practical reasons for joining up with Consortium, I’m really excited to be in with a group of great publishers like And Other Stories and BOA Editions and Copper Canyon, and Dzanc, and others. Feels like the place that we should’ve been all along . . .

Trieste by Daša Drndić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Resolution #4: Create a Special Series for the World Cup.

George Carroll announced our forthcoming World Cup of Books at Shelf Awareness today, which means it’s definitely going to happen. I’ll be posting more specifics in the not-too-distant future, but if you’re interested in helping contribute, please let me know. (Really looking for people well-versed in the literature of the qualifying countries with fewer books available in America.)

Seeing that Croatia took out my beloved Iceland—which would’ve been the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup—this seems like an appropriate book under which to announce our little contest.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland (New Directions)

Resolution #5: Read One Book from Every World Cup Qualifying Country.

Following up on #4, this seems like a great way to combine my interests in soccer and literature . . . Not sure The Guest Cat will be the book I read from Japan, but it does feature a cat and we all know that cats sell. I know there’s no way ND would ever put together a cute cat video compilation to promote this books, but, seriously, cats sell. This poster is pretty much the only reason so many students sign up for my spring class:



Poems to Read on a Streetcar by Oliverio Girondo, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (New Directions)

Resolution #6: Make September A Thousand Forests in One Acorn Month.

This anthology—edited by Valerie Miles—features 28 Spanish-language authors, including a lot of “Big Name” writers like Fuentes, Marias, Vargas Llosa, Vila-Matas and the like, and twelve that have never before appeared in English. What’s unique about this collection is that each piece is prefaced by an interview with the author in which s/he explains why s/he chose this particular story/excerpt as a representative of his/her “aesthetic high point” and also talks about his/her influences, etc. So, for the month of September, every day we’ll run either an excerpt from one of the interviews, or a bit from a previously untranslated story. Stay tuned—this is an incredible collection and you’re going to love the shit out of these pieces.

The Interior Landscape by A. K. Ramanujan, translated from the Tamil by the author (New York Review Books)
Resolution #7: Expand My Reading Horizons.

In a little while, I’m going to post a list of all the books I read in 2013. This is kind of pointless, but since I kept track of the titles and what languages they were originally written in, I can confirm that, out of the 111 books I read last year only 27 were by authors from courtries outside of Europe and North & South America. And that includes the 16 Korean titles I read for the LTI Korea—most of which I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up. So, to be honest, less that 10% of the books I read last year were from India, the Middle East, Africa, Asian, etc. . . . That’s kind of sad. I want to do better with that this year.

1914 by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)

Resolution #8: Create Some Sort of Translator Love Month.

Way back when, Erica Mena and I interviewed a bunch of translators at ALTA Pasadena (in 2009??) and posted all of these on Three Percent. As an advocate for translators, I think we really should do this more often, like, maybe in October, to correspond with the publication of A Man Between: The Life and Teachings of Michael Henry Heim, we could have a month of short interviews highlighting the most interesting and talented translators working today. You know, people like Linda Coverdale.

This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Open Letter)

Resolution #9: More Self-Promotion.

This is probably my depression talking, but it seems like for the past few years, we’ve been talking up all sorts of interesting and fantastic projects and books, but receiving very little love in return. As a result, I’m going to take extra efforts to make sure that we get a lot of info about our new books up on Three Percent and elsewhere.

Starting with this year’s first release, the short story collection, “This Is the Garden”: by Giulio Mozzi and translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris. It’s a great collection, and one that includes angel dong. Seriously. Come for the angel dong, and stay for the beautiful prose!

All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Griasnowa, translated from the German by Eva Bacon (Other Press)

Resolution #10: Post at Least Once a Day.

When things get busy, it’s really easy to just skip posting for a day, which then becomes two . . . three . . . a week. Thankfully, Kaija has been keeping the site going with lots of book reviews (thanks to all of you!), but I’m going to make a dedicated effort to install a Five Day Plan mixing book posts, with industry posts, with links to other interesting articles.

The Literature Express by Lasha Bugadze, translated from the Georgian by Maya Kiasashvili (Dalkey Archive)

Resolution #11: Launch Open Letter After Dark.

I’m keeping most of this under wraps for now, but sometime soon, I hope we’ll have some exciting news . . .

Have a great 2014!

27 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on yesterday’s announcement of Mikhail Shishkin’s April tour, here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote for The Independent, A Revolution for Russia’s Words:

My departure from the language, the loss of Russian murmuring in my ears, forced me to stop, to be silent. On the rare occasions when we meet, writers from Russia are amazed. “How can you write in this boring Switzerland? Without the language, without the tension?”

They are right – the atmospheric pressure in Russian letters is heightened. And the language is changing rapidly. My exit from Russian speech forced me to turn around and face it. Work on my text came to a halt. Just as there are rests in music, so are there silences in a text. Perhaps they are its most important part.

What is the language I left behind? What did I take with me? Where do the words go from here? A labour of silence. If I was to go further, I had to understand where the essence of writing in Russian actually lay. Being at once creator and creature of the fatherland’s reality, the Russian language is a form of existence, the body of a totalitarian consciousness. Daily life has always muddled through without words: with bellowing, interjections, and gag lines from film comedies. It is the state and literature that require coherent words.

Russian literature is not a form of existence for the language, but a way of existing in Russia for the non-totalitarian consciousness. The totalitarian consciousness has been amply served by decrees and prayers. Decrees from above, prayers from below. The latter are usually more original than the former. Swearing is the vital prayer of a prison country.

Edicts and cursing are the nation’s yin and yang, its rain and field, phallus and vagina; the verbal conception of Russian civilisation. Over the generations, prison reality produced a prison consciousness whose governing principle was that the strongest gets the best bunk. This consciousness was expressed in a language called up to serve Russian life, maintaining it in a state of continuous, unending civil war. When everyone lives by prison camp laws, the mission of language is a cold war between everyone and his neighbour. If the strong must inevitably beat the feeble, it is the mission of language to do this verbally. Humiliate him, insult him and steal his ration. Language as a form of disrespect for the individual.

Russian reality produced a language of unbridled power and abasement. The language of the Kremlin and the prison camp slang of the street share one and the same nature. In a country that lives by an unwritten but distinct law – the place of the weakest is by the slop bucket – the dialect suits the reality. Words rape. Words abuse. Had the borders always been under lock and key, there would be no Russian literature.

The whole piece is worth reading and can be found here.

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:

18 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is a guest post from Tanya Paperny, a writer, translator, event planner, and adjunct professor of journalist and composition. Her translations of Andrei Krasnyashykh have recently appeared in The Massachusetts Review and _The Literary Review. You can read more of her writing at Culturally Progressive, her personal blog.

As Chad has already written about, Mikhail Shishkin officially declined an invitation to attend this year’s BookExpo America as part of the official Russian delegation. In his public letter, he wrote:

By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation . . . I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.

Now some Russians accuse him of trying to “create a certain image for himself” or of “having no right to say anything” because he has lived in Switzerland since 1995. Of course Masha Gessen was right when she wrote in the New York Times that Shishkin’s critics are just the “old anti-dissident demagogic standbys.” Certainly they are no different from xenophobes in the U.S. who call for immigrants to “go home if you don’t like it here.”

A similar rejection was made around 2003, when poet Kirill Medvedev renounced the copyright to all his previously-published works and stopped publishing (except on his blog), focusing his energies on leftist political actions (read more on the recent English-language translation of his work here). I believe both these men were being genuine. They were not aiming for a publicity stunt but at an honest effort to change the status quo.

But the aspect that seems to be missing from these conversations is one about gender and the priviledge inherent in male writers making these types of rejections.

As Liz Clark Wessel, editor at Argos Books and Circumference, told me: “I don’t doubt the authenticity of their pronouncements; they are just very gendered.”

Were a woman writer to make a similar public statement—rejecting an opportunity or declining to publish—she likely wouldn’t cause such a stir. A woman who made the same choice might be seen as prioritizing the domestic rather than as motivated by a political consciousness. When a woman writer has children, the world assumes she’ll retreat and stop writing, anyway. She doesn’t have the privilege of choice.
Largely this is a product—in Russia as in the United States—of the notion that the big important novels of our time are being written by men. In the U.S., the books that are said to speak to a generation (often titled “The _____”) are written by Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. These are our American literary ‘towering figures.’

It’s no accident that Shishkin has twice recieved the prestigious Большая Книга prize (translates to “The Big Book”), which has been given to 25 men since 2005 and only 6 women (by my count).

11 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, our author Mikhail Shishkin (whose Maidenhair is the most important book I’ve ever published) cause a bit of a stir over the weekend, when he decided against participating in the Read Russia delegation to BookExpo America this summer.

Here’s the complete text of his letter declining the invitation, as translated from the Russia by Marian Schwartz:

To the Federal Agency for the Press and Mass Communications and the International Office of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center

February 27, 2013

Dear Sirs,

Thank you for your invitation to take part in the activities of the official Russian delegation at BookExpo America 2013, the international book fair in New York being held from May 30 to June 1 of this year.

I understand how important participation in this kind of book fair is for a writer and for promoting his books in America and other countries. This is a unique opportunity to make contact with American publishers and readers, since the English-language book market remains virtually closed to writers from countries like Russia. Especially since all expenses for traveling to and staying in the United States (and this is no small sum) are taken on by the official Russian side.

Nonetheless, I am declining. Not because “my schedule doesn’t permit it,” but out of ethical considerations.

I have accepted similar proposals from you many times in the past and have participated in international book fairs as part of the Russian writers delegation, but in the last year the situation has changed.

In any self-respecting country, the state, through various foundations and organizations, supports the advancement of its writers abroad, pays for translations, invites writers to participate in international book fairs, and so on. For example, in Norway this is done by Norla; in Switzerland, Pro Helvetia. Naturally, by taking part in an official delegation, the writers represents not only himself personally and his books but also his country, his state.

Russia’s political development, and the events of last year in particular, have created a situation in the country that is absolutely unacceptable and demeaning for its people and its great culture. What is happening in my country makes me, as a Russian and a citizen of Russia, ashamed. By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me as a writer, I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.

A country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become farce, where courts serve the authorities, not the law, where there are political prisoners, where state television has become a prostitute, where packs of impostors pass insane laws that are returning everyone to the Middle Ages—such a country cannot be my Russia. I cannot and do not want to participate in an official Russian delegation representing that Russia.

I want to and will represent another Russia, my Russia, a country free of impostors, a country with a state structure that defends the right of the individual, not the right to corruption, a country with a free media, free elections, and free people.

Naturally, this is my personal decision and has not been made in consultation with other writers invited to New York; each is free to act in accordance with his or her own notions of ethics and reasonability.

Respectfully yours,

Mikhail Shishkin

Of course, Russia’s deputy minister of the press, Vladimir Grigoryev (who gives the most boring of all boring speeches) came out against Shishkin, using some really Sovietesque language:

We regret this. This sort of thing happens when a Russian writer spends many years away from the motherland. There are many examples of this in history.”

Yeah, gee, I wonder why . . .

And also of course, a bunch of other Russian writers are piling on Shishkin, talking about how he’s able to criticize the government from the “safety of Switzerland,” which is where Shishkin now lives.

All of this—along with the gripes that he’s doing this to get publicity for The Letter-Book, which is coming out in the UK sometime soon, or that he’s angling for the Nobel Prize—is fucking irritating. Since when is it not OK to criticize Russia and Putin’s never-ending reign? Any half-informed hipster in Brooklyn can get politico cred and free skinny jeans for yelling “Free Pussy Riot!,” but a writer being asked to represent Russia’s tyrannical, fairly insane government can only decline if he’s living in the country where Pussy Riot is jailed and Putin Youth flush away books they don’t agree with? What the fuck sense does that even make?

I’m so glad that Masha Gessen takes a lot of this to task in her NY Times piece today:

Prominent opposition writers also condemned Shishkin. Dmitry Bykov, a liberal writer and poet, suggested that Shishkin may be angling for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Eduard Limonov, a nationalist writer and poet, was more blunt: “So he is barking from Switzerland. Yes, my dear, Russia is a shameful paternalistic medieval state. But you have no right to say anything from the safety of Switzerland.”

All of this sounds painfully familiar. As a Russian journalist who speaks out against the regime, I am often told to get out of the country if I don’t like it — and just as often that, as someone who has lived in the United States and could live there again, I have no right to talk or write about Russia. By this logic, only those who have no choice but to live in Russia are entitled to criticize its regime. These arguments are old anti-dissident demagogic standbys, hardly unique to Russia, and they barely deserve attention.

But there is something else that the debate over Shishkin’s statement has exposed. The Russian state thinks it owns its citizens, including its writers, and many of its citizens, including its writers, appear instinctively to agree. To them, the very act of asserting one’s autonomy is suspect, which is why when someone does they look for ulterior motives. Shishkin must have fallen out of touch, or into bad company, or have a bigger plan, they reason — as though just claiming the right to choose one’s allegiances was not both the most basic and the most ambitious goal of all.

What really pleases me about all this is that Shishkin will be spending the month of April in the U.S., teaching at Columbia, doing events in Austin, San Francisco, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, and as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. This tour is brought to you by Open Letter Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, the University of Buffalo, the University of Rochester, Columbia University, Holy Cross, the University of Texas, and other organizations not part of the Russian government. (More details coming soon.)

And to end on a high note, here’s a good review of the book at Slightly Bookist:

The first reading of Maidenhair is like tipping the pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw out of the box and turning them all picture-side up. It’s quite the endeavour, requiring dedication to a fiddly and time-consuming task. Once the pieces are all out, there’s a vague sense of what the finished puzzle might look like: some sky, some grass, a white poodle with a red ribbon, a Bavarian castle standing grimly above a river. In no way, though, is your task complete. The same is true of a single reading of Maidenhair: once through is simply not enough to really appreciate it. The most you can hope for is to catch sight of some particularly attractive individual pieces, a fuzzy idea of the bigger picture, some parts that look really interesting, and the occasional group of pieces that could be anything. [. . .]

Maidenhair has stayed with me in the two months since I’ve read it. It’s a book that confirms Open Letter’s excellence in curation (except, of course, for a slight gender imbalance).1 If I say it’s worth persevering with, it sounds as though reading it is unenjoyable, which is far from true. But Maidenhair is a book that demands and then rewards attention, so it’s not one to read if you’ve turned into a gadget and can’t even concentrate long enough to read a single tweet without checking your email halfway through.

Also, World Literature Today also has a positive review that reinforces the difficultly/payoff of disentangling Maidenhair:

This array of connections forms a complex puzzle that can at times be dizzyingly intricate and even baffling. But disentangling Shishkin’s structure is one of the principal pleasures of reading Maidenhair. It is not only aesthetically satisfying but also reveals Shishkin’s unique worldview, which manages to engage Russia’s literary heritage while at the same time creating something new and altogether original.

Controversy and counter-controversy aside, you should just buy and read this book. Your life will be better for it.

1 We’re always trying to change this. And although still representing only 40% of our list, over the next 15 titles, we’re bringing out 6 books written by women and two anthologies including both male and female writers. It’s never perfect, but at least that’s a bit better . . .

20 August 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Sales rep superstar and international literature enthusiast George Carroll just posted a “destination guide” at NW Book Lovers that highlights a number of great presses, organizations, and books worth checking out.

Many of these—like Three Percent, New Directions, the Center for the Art of Translation—you’re probably already familiar with, but it’s always fun to see someone else talking about your books and/or the reasons for reading international literature in the first place.

There’s an opinion in publishing that literature in translation doesn’t sell— that the books are dense and unapproachable, and that Americans won’t read authors whose names we can’t pronounce. Norman Manea (The Lair, Yale Margellos) says books in translation are thought to be “too ‘complicated,’ which is another way of saying that literature should deal with simple issues in a simple way.”

Haruki Murakami once said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” If that’s true, people who read international literature are true iconoclasts. Only about three percent of all books published in the United States are works in translation. In terms of literary fiction and poetry, that number drops below one percent. And mainstream reviewers ignore most of the books that make it through the translation process into print.

I also want to point out that his three recommendations—Satantango by Laszlo Krashnahorkai, Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, and Almost Never by Daniel Sada—are three of my favorite books from 2012 . . .

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

Friend of Three Percent, Lisa Hayden Espenschade, who runs the incredible Russian literature blog Lizok’s Bookshelf posted the shortlist for the über-prestigious Big Book (Bol’shaya Kniga) Prize. Big Book is one of the “big three” Russian literary prizes, along with the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller (or NatsBest).

Our old Open Letter pal Mikhail Shishkin won the Big Book last year for his Letter-Book (Pis’movnik), with Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (Metel’) coming in second and Dmitry Bykov’s Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Ostromov, ili Uchenik charodeya) coming in third. The Big Book Prize fund distributes 6.1 million rubles (~$183k) annually among the first, second, and third prize winners, and is sponsored by a number of Russian businesses and banks along with the Russian Ministries of Culture and Print, Media and Mass Broadcasting.

There will be a Big Book Prize presentation event at Book Expo American next Thursday at 10am featuring past winners Mikhail Shishkin, Dmitry Bykov, Vladimir Makanin, Pavel Basinsky, and, supposedly, the Big Book finalists:The way the wording on Read Russia’s website describes the event (“Big Book Prize: Presentation of the Big Book Prize, Russia’s most prestigious literary award, plus a “Meet and Greet” with prize winners.”), I still can’t tell if they are really planning on announcing the 2012 Big Book winner at BEA, which would be awesome, or if they were just trying to present to an American audience the idea of the Big Book Award and will make the announcement for the prize winner in November, as stated in Russian media reports.

The shortlist features a number of readers whom neither I nor Lisa have read, both of us are only familiar with Prilepin’s Black Monkey, so we have a lot to catch up on before the prizewinner is (allegedly) announced in November! Without any further ado, here is the shortlist, in English no less (!), with transliteration and translation provided by Lisa herself.

  • Maria Galina: Медведки (Mole-Crickets)
  • Daniil Granin: Мой лейтенант… (My Lieutenant . . .)
  • Aleksandr Grigorenko: Мэбэт. История человека тайги (Mebet. The Story of a Person from the Taiga)
  • Vladimir Gubailovsky: Учитель цинизма (The Teacher of Cynicism)
  • Andrei Dmitriev: Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager)
  • Aleksandr Kabakov, Evgenii Popov: Аксёнов (Aksyonov)
  • Vladimir Makanin: Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky)
  • Sergei Nosov: Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier)
  • Valerii Popov: Плясать досмерти (To Dance to Death)
  • Zakhar Prilepin: Чёрная обезьяна (The Black Monkey)
  • Andrei Rubanov: Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats/Exploits)
  • Marina Stepnova: Женщины Лазаря (The Women of Lazarus/Lazarus’s Women)
  • Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov): «Несвятые святые» и другие рассказы (“Unsaintly Saints” and Other Stories)
  • Lena Eltang: Другие барабаны (Other Drums)

A huge thanks to Lisa for her tireless work in alerting English readers to what’s going on in the world of Russian literature. Check out her posts for reviews and insider tips on what’s going on in the world of Russian literature, and I hope to meet her at BEA next week!

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.”

....
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Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

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Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

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