18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

At the Read Russia event at Book Expo America last week (was it really only last week!?), Overlook Press announced a new project, the Russian Library initiative, supported by Read Russia and the Russian government that is going to result in the publication of 125 works over the next ten years that span all a thousand years of Russian literary history to create an official, singularly-released, uniform edition of Russian literature, from the great early Russian epics to, hypothetically, the present day.

As a Slavophil with a penchant for history who now works in publishing, a bunch of people hit me up about Overlook’s project, asking what I thought about it. And I’ve been marinating my sentiments for over a week, trying to weight both the positive and the negative, and then Chad asked me to write about it, so I guess I’ll have to give it my all. I love this project, I love Overlook and Ardis and anyone who publishes anything from Russia, and I love all of the works that will be included in this series, though not all 125 titles seem to have been compiled yet. And yet I have some serious problems with everything. According to Overlook’s press release:

“Selected titles will have been nominated and commissioned by an Advisory Board of distinguished scholars, translators, and academics. The series will feature not only the obvious great masterpieces of Russian literature by Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, but other major works that continue to remain unknown outside Russia, for example, early texts from the Russian literary canon such as the early works as The Primary Chronicle (1113), The Lay of Igor (1185), and The Novgorod Chronicle (ca. 1200). These will be followed by nine centuries of Russia’s rich literary tradition to the present day. THE RUSSIAN LIBRARY editions will be designed and produced to an elegant standard format, each volume introduced and critically annotated by appropriate scholars.”

This is a massive achievement, worthy of praise. But let’s talk about the reality of the situation here. The Russian government is behind this, via the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications, and they are presumably bankrolling the entire project (because no one in the right minds actually expects that even the most dedicated Game of Thrones fan is actually going to go out and pick up The Lay of Igor just because Overlook is bravely publishing digital and attractive print editions of the epic). This “Russian Library” initiative is meant to invoke the great national library collections of the world, like The Library of America. But any time a government gets involved in the publication of anything, there’s reason to be wary, and innumerable questions arise: what are their intentions, what is their endgoal, and why will certain works be selected but not others?

My biggest problem with the “Russian Library” project is a problem that infects the entire publishing industry and which, of course, inspired the title of this blog (and the reason why I’m here). Considering an estimated 3% of everything published in America every year is a translation (shout out to the Three Percent idea!), but only an estimated 0.3% of the total are original, new translations, why would we continue to pour so many dollars and resources behind projects to republish and republish the Dostoevskies and Tolstoys of the world, authors who have had fantastic translations done numerous times since their original Constance Garnett translations over a century ago, and who are already republished and retranslated far too often every year?! To give this project some credit, this might be the first time some of the epics have been released to the public in their full, unedited form (I’m not really sure if these will be edited, nor am I sure if they’ve ever been released in their full form in the States, I read them in Serge Zenkovsky’s awesome Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales), and it remains to be seen how many of the 125 books will not just be reprints (I doubt any of these works will be retranslations, though Russian translators in the States could sure use the work) – I hope it’s more than one.

So who is the target market for this ambitious project? My guess is American politicians, because I don’t believe scholars of Russian history constitute a large enough of a share of the market for books these days. I think, quite plainly, that the Russian government wants to boost its image abroad. And what is the one thing that everyone in the world unequivocally likes about Russia? Hint: the answer is not vodka; the answer is literature. But if the Russian government really wanted to support its image and Russian literature abroad at the same time, they shouldn’t have to reissue Crime & Punishment for the umpteenth time, they’d support the writers of today who live and breathe Russian literature or the authors who were repressed and/or swept into the dustbin of history (only to be rescued by fine folks like NYRB, whose publications of Platonov, Grossman, and Krzhizhanovsky are worthy of the highest praise) who could be held up as bright and shining examples of how Russian literary culture perseveres, despite political tugs-of-war and name-calling.

The Russian government does not, however, typically support contemporary Russian literature. They do not support the translations of contemporary Russian literature abroad, and it seems like the Russian government would much rather forget that Russian literature is alive and well, with the innumerable Russian authors who are still waiting for their first translated publications in the States, prominent Russian names like Prilepin, Bykov, Shishkin (whose first English translation is finally coming out this fall through Open Letter, or even authors who have had only a limited number of their works ever published in English, like Ulitskaya and Slavnikova (who both should be included in this set, considering her work with Overlook), Petrushevskaya, Sorokin, or Pelevin.

The Russian government would be better served by supporting financially the publication of all kinds of Russian literary endeavors abroad through international presses like Overlook, NYRB, Open Letter and others, and especially those precious few organizations that currently support Russian translations abroad: the Prokhorov Fund’s ‘Transcript’ project (headed up by the amazing Irina Prokhorova, the literary sister of Brooklyn Nets-owning oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov) and the new Center for Translation in Moscow. So Russian government, good for you for finally seeing the value in your long cultural history for export abroad, but it’s time to act on that in the here and now and stop publishing so many reprints of 19th-century Russian literature and work on righting the wrongs of your politically-repressive history of suppressing great literature and get all of the great works that have never been translated in the past thousand years printed and distributed in America ASAP. Then that will be something I could stand up and applaud whole-heartedly.

24 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Julianna Romanazzi on Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Interpreter, translated from the Russian by Arch Tait and available from Overlook Press.

Ludmila Ulitskaya is one of a handful of contemporary Russian writers to have a number of their works translated into English. And the others that come to mind—Pelevin, Sorokin—are all males. Over the past few years, Schocken has published The Funeral Party, Medea and Her Children, and Sonechka: A Novella and Stories.

Helps that in addition to being a first-class author, Ulitskaya is a bit of a controversial figure, as chronicled in this piece in the Guardian, which includes a pretty sweet quote:

“My perception of Putin as an individual is that he is quite juvenile, not very mature, and all the pictures we have of him from state television are of Putin climbing Everest or fighting a tiger or extinguishing a fire. It’s just a kind of joke, these macho games.”

Anyway, on to Julianna’s second review of the week . . .

To some in the realm of journalism and literary representation the notions of “poetic license” and “poetic truth” stand as two very dubious cornerstones on which to build factual novels. The shaky foundations leave all kinds of room for interpretation, embellishment and, perhaps in the wrong hands, the glorification of the undeserving, Binjamin Wilkomirki’s Fragments a prime example.

Russian bestselling author Ludmila Ulitskaya, however, brings an interesting take to the table with her book Daniel Stein, Interpreter, a semi-fictitious (more on that later) account of the real life Brother Daniel who led an unconventional and in some ways unbelievable life. Ulitskaya’s novel chronicles the life and ripple effects of literary creation Dieter “Daniel” Stein, an alter ego based on the real Oswald Rufeisen—priest, Gestapo, and Jew.

Presented in epistolary format, the book brings the reader through a web of documents—everything from recorded “Talks to Schoolchildren” to NKVD archives, newspaper articles, and personal letters—on two twisting and intermingling chronological timelines. The first, as is a recurring theme, starts with one of Brother Daniel’s acquaintances in 1985, one for whom he starts as only a rumor. On paths always winding, whether through hearsay or by accident, the people of Ulitskaya’s novel and those existing in real life come to him with problems personal and profound.

Click here to read the full review.

24 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To some in the realm of journalism and literary representation the notions of “poetic license” and “poetic truth” stand as two very dubious cornerstones on which to build factual novels. The shaky foundations leave all kinds of room for interpretation, embellishment and, perhaps in the wrong hands, the glorification of the undeserving, Binjamin Wilkomirki’s Fragments a prime example.

Russian bestselling author Ludmila Ulitskaya, however, brings an interesting take to the table with her book Daniel Stein, Interpreter, a semi-fictitious (more on that later) account of the real life Brother Daniel who led an unconventional and in some ways unbelievable life. Ulitskaya’s novel chronicles the life and ripple effects of literary creation Dieter “Daniel” Stein, an alter ego based on the real Oswald Rufeisen—priest, Gestapo, and Jew.

Presented in epistolary format, the book brings the reader through a web of documents—everything from recorded “Talks to Schoolchildren” to NKVD archives, newspaper articles, and personal letters—on two twisting and intermingling chronological timelines. The first, as is a recurring theme, starts with one of Brother Daniel’s acquaintances in 1985, one for whom he starts as only a rumor. On paths always winding, whether through hearsay or by accident, the people of Ulitskaya’s novel and those existing in real life come to him with problems personal and profound.

The second timeline, starting in 1959, follows the life of the man himself. Born a Jew in Poland and given a German education, Daniel came of age during the Holocaust and hid his ethnicity from the SS by working as an interpreter for the Gestapo, translating in turn for the Germans, Belorussians and the NKVD. While working for the Germans he organized the freedom of 300 Jews from the Emsk ghetto, escaped massacres and his own executions, and after the war converted to Catholicism and became a priest. He later moved to Israel. And that’s where the story really takes off.

Despite Ulitskaya’s creation of some characters and documents—and it should be noted that many of the documents and testimonies in the book are in fact real—her Daniel is not an exaggeration. Teaching without discrimination and at times to the dismay of his adopted Catholic Church, Brother Daniel went back to the teaching of God before the split of Judaism and Christianity. In the midst of writing a biography Ulitskaya gives an insightful and at times comical and cathartic look at tensions in and beyond Israel—of faith, of lifestyles, of ecclesiastical orders and families.

With the whole of his life he raised a heap of unresolved, highly inconvenient issues which nobody talks about: the value of a life turned into mush beneath one’s feet; the freedom which few people want; God for whom there is ever less room in our life; and life which has closed in on itself. Have I packaged that temptingly?

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.

....
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