Pushkin Hills – Sergei Dovlatov, Translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, Russia
Pushkin Hills is about a talented but hapless writer called … well, we might as well call him Sergei Dovlatov, even though that’s not the name he has in the book. Dovlatov is really telling his own story, that of a Soviet dissident who’s unable to publish and yet unable to leave his language and his country behind. At loose ends, he makes the impulsive decision to abandon his wife, child, and life, and become a tour guide in the pastoral setting of the Pushkin Preserve, the historic home of the father of Russian literature.
When he’s not immersing himself in drink, the author’s stand-in immerses himself in the picayune details of the great man’s life and trades pedantries with visiting fans. He’s not above making things up when he’s bored, either, which he frequently is. He’s still in love with his ex, who implores him to emigrate with her to the US, but he’s not interested: “My readers are here. Who needs my stories in Chicago?” That he has no actual readers at home doesn’t matter; it’s the principle of the thing, dammit. He’s heroic in his passivity.
The real Dovlatov did eventually make it out of the USSR and became one of the most beloved émigré writers of his era (there’s a street named after him in Queens, New York). Aside from the charming roguishness of the author’s personality, is there something to his work, though? Yes, in spades (my own little Pushkin allusion). Among an excellent longlist of nominees for the BTBA, it’s an enjoyable standout. Why should it win?
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.
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.
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!
From an article in The Guardian about a very jacked Russian translation of a movie about Margaret Thatcher:
Speaking to a crowd of supporters, Margaret Thatcher, as played by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, explains what she would do as prime minister: “Crush the working class, crush the scum, the yobs.”
At least that is a scene from a pirated version of the film in Russia, which has been inadvertently reviewed by one of the country’s top film critics without realising that some rather pointed changes to the script had been made.
The pirated Russian translation of the film, voiced over in a monotone by one man, depicts Thatcher as a bloodthirsty, Hitler-admiring leader, whose fondest desire is to destroy the working class. While some of her critics might say this is an accurate representation of her plans, even her fiercest enemy would concede the Russian version takes it too far. [. . .]
In a scene from the original film, two Conservative advisers tell Thatcher that she needs to soften her image after they watch her being interviewed on television. In the Russian version, which has been dubbed to have her say that she would crush the working class, an adviser responds: “Of course you went a bit over the top … One of them [the workers] could be literate and have a television and see everything and tell all the rest,” he says, “and then rumours would spread that you are a pitiless, heartless bitch.”
From the Library of Congress (via The Elegant Variation):
On April 23, 2009, a federal district court in the southern Russian province of Dagestan issued an unprecedented ruling, ordering a journalist of a local newspaper to pay compensation in an amount equal to US$1,000 to a writer who did not like a review of his book published in the newspaper. The plaintiff, an author whose work of fiction was reviewed in the publication’s book review section, sued the reviewer, claiming that the author and his family had experienced severe mental suffering and that his professional reputation was damaged as a result of the review. The writer stated that after reading the book review, he experienced chest pains, headache, and elevated blood pressure. He demanded to be compensated in the amount of US$150,000. Both parties were dissatisfied with the court ruling and expressed their intention to appeal.
Maybe publishers can get on this as well. . . . Start suing papers for crappy reviews, or even suing them for not reviewing the book! My health (and our financial stability, I might add) has been severely hampered by all the reviews I’m counting on that have yet to appear . . .
This post originally appeared on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog, and drew a comment . . .
At the urging of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the German Book Office in Moscow, Russian representatives put on a special “Look at Russia” seminar earlier today. Vladimir Grigoriev, the deputy head of the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication, gave a short presentation filled with statistics about the Russian publishing scene, including:
Always interesting to get these facts, and to compare them with other countries, but I wish he (or another presenter) would’ve talked about some contemporary writers, particular publishing houses, etc. Unlike a number of other countries (Netherlands, Estonia, France, Germany, and many more), Russia does not have a “book office” or any other organization designed to promote Russia literature abroad, which is one reason that only a few contemporary writers are being translated.
Surprisingly (to me at least), the question and answer session got a bit tense when someone questioned the motive of the Russian booth, claiming that instead of sending Russia authors to represent the culture, they only sent the government . . . Grigoriev dodged the question gracefully, claiming that the private publishing scene has only existed for seventeen years, so publishers were still learning how to promote authors abroad. He did follow this up by pointing out that the only state-run publishers are the ones that produce medical books, the official encylopedia, and textbooks . . . You know, fact-based publications. Hmm.
Note: One of things I didn’t mention in this piece was how the event ended. After the initial round of speeches, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s old (literally) friend and biographer gave a brief talk. Honestly, I’m not sure if this woman had ever used a microphone in her life. Instead of speaking into it, she kept dropping it, hitting various objects, causing eardrum-exploding feedback loops.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .