poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

March 17, 2011

Checking In (with politics, art & poetry)

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:17 PM
Tags: , , ,

The past week or two has left me feeling like I’ve been trampled by a drunken crowd, and I am not even referring to St. Patrick’s Day. You might imagine that a person with major depression would spend all day lying in bed. Oh how I’d give anything to spend a whole day in bed. But construction season has arrived in Chicago with the spring air, and peace is elusive. A few mornings ago I awoke to two turtle doves on the windowsill by my pillows. It was magical… until they were swiftly chased away by the clatter of jackhammers below. A metaphor for my emotional state.

I hate Spring. I REALLY hate Spring.

Monday evening I met with my politically-minded friends at a bankrupt hippie joint on the outskirts of town to celebrate our recent victories in the the local Aldermanic elections. Most notable was that of Ameya Pawar, a young, first-time, independent candidate who, to everyone’s surprise – including his own, won a seat that had been held by the same machine candidate for 30+ years. Democracy, it seems, does have its moments. In other news of the evening, Ilya Sheyman announced his exploratory commission for for Congress. Ilya is a fabulous young man I’ve known through Democracy For America, a far more nuts&bolts&elbow grease lefty organization than its name belies. He is a smart, community-minded, dedicated guy with gobs of organizing experience, and perhaps most importantly, he bought me a drink. Tell Ilya to Run!

I must confess that having several attractive Russian Jewish men buy me drinks within the course of one week has got me thinking that this is a habit I could really get into. Perhaps I should have dramatic life crises more often?

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent having a hysterical breakdown after two separate people took it upon themselves to send me wholly inappropriate emails. It’s a miracle I survived.


Some people find the peace they seek in churches; I find it at The Art Institute. So I gathered the shattered pieces of myself and made a pilgrimage, to escape my ego and remind myself why life is worth living. The John Marin and Margaret Bourke-White exhibits were especially divine. Side-stepping the intellectual debate over What is art? and what is good art, I admit I approach it like wine: consume a lot, try anything once, decide what you like and just go with it. Marin’s compositions had an airiness (thanks, ds) and playful pastels like Duffy but with a modern, edgy abstraction. Bourke-White’s Depression Era photographs were too timely, but I preferred her highly stylized decontextualized industrial photos that reminded me of Vertov’s Man with Movie Camera. I could fill my apartment with the works of both of these artists and feel as though they’d all been created especially for me. I was also able to revisit my old friends the Chagall windows, Picasso’s Old Guitarist, Van Gogh’s Bedroom, Miro’s Circus Horse, the still life with a monkey and that reclining female nude with her back turned to the room.

Friday through Monday was a blur of social engagements and visits with dear friends, old college dorm-mates, family, gluttonous amounts of food (Spires’ favorite Cafe Selmarie, Spacca Napoli, croissants, butternut squash kugel…), too much generosity, good long talks, glasses of wine, and everything else one does everything else in hopes of enjoying. And Tuesday I crashed. Very hard.

During it all I continue daily therapy, struggle to sleep (though I am eating again), remain overwhelmed by my obligations and take medicine I hate. I take the medicine because I saw a PBS documentary about PTSD and depression which explained that scientists have recently discovered that these tortures, in addition to making you feel like shit, KILL YOUR BRAINCELLS. Well, so long as I absolutely must continue in this world, I’d like to have all the braincells I can get. So, drugs…

I’ve also become obsessed with the situation in Japan. I am told it is not wise for someone so emotionally fragile as myself to watch the news. Neither is it wise to drink or chase boys, but they way I see it, a bad decision is still a decision, and therefore an improvement over the anxiety-induced paralysis in which I had previously been trapped. So I am addicted to the shots of terrible disaster, emergency alerts and incomprehensible press conferences on NHK, which is constantly on my TV. Sometimes it is not even in English, but I watch anyway. This happened to me during Katrina, 9-11 and the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. I bought all the magazines with Dolly on them. It’s morose, really. Yet it does seem weirdly therapeutic.

It’s not all so awful. I did buy a book at Borders’ fire sale. I know. I feel really horribly guilty about it. I was just posting hysterically about the threat of homelessness. But when my step-brother was sleeping on my studio floor I realized the only bedtime reading I had was an anthology of erotica that arrived in a care package from a friend. It was mortifying. I suppose a better idea would be to go to the library, but I keep having my books recalled before I finish them! And besides, I was not only buying something pleasurable for myself, but supporting a cause my readers know is near and dear to my heart: the contemporary literature in translation movement. Yes, I purchased the Best European Fiction 2011, edited by Sasha Hemon. Oh! I know! It seems it was only yesterday that I was reviewing the inaugural edition of this project. Oh, halcyon days!

In closing I was going to post a poem written by my Russian poetry professor, Ilya Kutik, about a Tsunami. But hell if I can find the damned thing on line. I did, however, find this, which seems just as appropriate:

A Hermit Pets a Cat, WhileThinking About the Ocean by Ilya Kutik
(trans. Andrew Wachtel)


O, my verse! Walk, don’t run…

Why run anyway? And where to…For you can’t

roll outta here like a tear drop

from grief—because the ocean’s made

of the name teary doremifasaline…

And I don’t want to add saltiness

to the world—much less to the water..Tears

have a lot to learn from the ocean: they are suicidal

flashes…While the ocean’s breast bursts against the shore

and, shazam, rises again…Which proves

once more that—despite the eternal

self-torment, it’s not worth taking your own life.

As always, thanks for reading.

October 11, 2010

Odds & Ends: Like in a dream Edition

A bit of catching up.

Vova’s Girlz.

~ Kevin O’Flynn: “Wanted: Putin’s Girl.”

So, this is annoying:

A girl was needed, but no ordinary one. She had to be not too tall and not too short, not too young and not too old — which if you’re wondering, is apparently between 22 and 27 — and she had to have a Moscow propiska, or registration.

It sounds like many a Moscow or even St. Petersburg man’s dream. Her skin had to be pure — no mention of her heart — her brows not too heavy, her chins not too many. Slavic features, please, they asked. Good manners, a way with lifts, not too big on the hips.

A beautiful smile and kind, intelligence plus the ability to take a bullet to the chest if somebody takes a pot shot at the guy who looks almost tall — to you, possibly — by your side.

If asked to find an escort for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, it is unlikely that I would have stuck an ad up on a web site.

But that is what went buzzing around the Internet a week or so ago. The escort was needed for last Friday when Putin was set to visit the Arctic forum at the new Moscow State University building.

Her job was to escort him to the lift: Nails have to be short enough to be able to press the button; make some meaningless chitchat — “So when will Novaya Zemlya get its first Coffee House?” — and then fade away like a late morning dream.

She was not the only one, as the company in question was actually looking for three hostesses in total. Probably because there are always a lot of lifts at Arctic forums.

Your dress, the ad said, must be business-style: suit, skirt/trousers, blouse, high heels, “not vulgar but beautiful.”

The girls, who have already had their moment, were to be chosen in a “casting” close to the Universitet metro station.

Most specific was the height requirement: “Height, STRICTLY 160-165 (plus 2 to 3 centimeters is possible),” the ad said. “VVP has a height of 169 cm, not higher than him, that’s for sure.”

I didn’t even bother trying our for that one … you know, er, propiskaless and all. Maybe Kevin finds this kind of headhunting vulgar, but at least it is honest. In America, we invite all the highly qualified applicants, hire the pretty ones as intended all along, and send the rest consolation letters, if they are lucky.

Why isn’t Lyudmila helping with the elevators? If you want to send a pro-family, traditional-values demography-inspiring message to your people, why not have the wife at your side? Alas, perhaps she has joined a convent? There are not even elevators in convents, I don’t think. Not in the ones I’ve stayed at. Oh yes I did. Catholic school, baby. Anyway, here is the difference between me and Lyudia Putina: I can still entertain the idea that it’s just that he hasn’t met me.

~ … I don’t have much to add to the Great Calendar Debate, except to wonder if people even need wall calendars anymore. I buy them. Mine have themes like “365 Days in France” and “Warhol’s Shoes,” but only because Putin hasn’t out out his own beefcake calendar yet. However, between Outlook, Blackberry, Google and every other cyber organizing tool out there, why buy a wall calendar? Because it gives you something nice to look at when you realize your bills are due. Which, politics aside, is why depressing calendars don’t sell.

~ From Becky Cloonan, via Natalia Antonova:

Read This.

Elif Batuman is a name I’ve come across from time to time, thought I should remember, and always forgot. She is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Which -based on nothing more than the title- has been immediately added to my reading list. But it’s her blog that has me reeling….

Kafka porn contest

Patient readers! I promised a Kafka contest, and here it is. In the course of researching my recent Kafka article, I was interested to learn about a 2008 Kafka pornography scandal, provoked by the publication of James Hawes’s Excavating Kafka (the US title of which, Why You Should Read Kafka before You Waste Your Life, makes me proud to be an American). As the Guardian put it:

At the focus of Hawes’ investigation are pictures he stumbled across in the British Library in London and the Bodleian in Oxford of the pornography to which Kafka subscribed while in his twenties. They include images of a hedgehog-style creature performing fellatio, golem-like male creatures grasping women’s breasts with their claw-like hands and a picture of a baby emerging from a sliced-open leg.

Myriad questions came to my mind. Whom or what was that hedgehog-style creature fellating? Was the Guardian being anti-Semitic when they called that breast-grasping creature a Golem? And who wants to see a baby coming out of someone’s leg? I consulted Google for answers and came across a terrifically helpful blog post which identifies and reproduces Aubrey Beardsley’s representation of a very angry-looking baby being removed from some guy’s leg (below), as per the description, in Lucian’s second-century proto-sci-fi hit True History, of how children are birthed on the Moon:\

Gratifying as this was, I was still really curious about that hedgehog and its unknown partner, which continued to elude my Googling skills for some time. One respected Kafka expert, to whom I broached the subject, basically counseled me to give up: “I think we can assume that the hedgehog was [performing these acts upon] another hedgehog, no? Isn’t that porn reportage protocol? You assume they’re of the same species, unless otherwise noted.” Well, Sir, that certainly isn’t my reportage protocol. And I’m glad it isn’t. Because, OK, don’t click on the link if you’re under 18 (believe me kiddo, it can wait), but I eventually found the picture, and, although I can’t tell you exactly what the soi-disant “hedgehog” is pleasuring, I can state with confidence that it is definitely not another soi-disant “hedgehog.”

As is often the case with Kafka, the more I learned, the more questions remained unanswered. What was that thing? Why was it behaving that way? Are such images “porn, pure and simple,” or are they, as Reiner Stach has suggested, mere “playful representations”?

Hoping to penetrate some of these mysteries, I addressed myself to valued reader and colleague Dimiter Kenarov, author of the Bulgarian bestselling poetry volume Апокрифни животни (Apocryphal Animals), the proceeds of which are diverted to the Sofia Zoo, where they have already financed a new swing for the monkeys. Kenarov suggested that the illustration represented some form of “apocryphal evolution,” but that, more significantly, one had perhaps stumbled upon “a whole new porn genre: Kafka Sex. There is money in here. For example, undressing a person only to find new and new layers of clothing underneath.”

I hereby decree this the first official entry in the My Life and Thoughts Kafka porn contest. Please send in your best ideas for this lucrative new genre, which may or may not eventually benefit in some way the monkeys in the Sofia Zoo.

Contest is over, and you’ve missed your chance to get some of her furniture. But a “first official entry” suggests there will be a second, official or otherwise. Anyway, this all somehow reminded me of that Edition 69 and the “The Devětsil ” literary movement. A bit after his time. But surrealist porn seems to be a theme with the Czechs…

~ Sheyngart recently showed up in the neighborhood. He did a great Q. and A., like he really wanted to be there, unlike Sasha Hemon. He’s quite funny. But not terribly serious. Which is too bad, because when he gets serious, great things come out. He was talking about how writers should take acting classes. I’d never thought about it, but it makes great sense. I’ve taken enough acting classes that I should now be prepared to write a novel. The crowd was a mix urban hipsters, Russian immigrants (a burly man rudely pushed past me to demand of the staff, “Vhat Time you Close?!”) and elderly Jews. Gary said he thought the Tea Party was better than Putin’s Russia. (Gary lives in NYC and doesn’t exactly have to worry about the Tea Party. I’ve not had any ancestors pogromed to death by Russians. We disagree.) He said he liked Pavel Pepperstein and Sorokin. He told a story about these old babushky who erected a giant toilet in central Moscow and were flushing Sorokin’s lurid books down it. You thought the story would end in grievance: so that’s the kind of thanks an artist gets in Putin’s oppressive Russia. He took a u-turn and remarked, “Russia’s the only country in the world that continues to care enough about novels to hold public protests against them.”

~ Adding to my blogroll: Lizok’s books.

~ I’ve about finished Rasskazy, and off the top of my head, the stories I liked most:

“THEY TALK” by Linor Goralik
“RUSSIAN HALLOWEEN” by Aleksander Bezzubtsev-Kondakov
“THE SEVENTH TOAST TO SNAILS” by Ekaterina Taratuta
“D.O.B.” by Aleksander Snegirev

Probably pure coincidence, but in this selection I’ve made, the women are writing experimental prose, and the men more traditional narratives. There is a lot of stuff in the book that, while very artistic and academic, does not seem to work very well. These did. I also wanted read twithout any political bias. One might argue that these are “Western” in their style, and condemnations of Russia in their content. They’re well written. And I am not sure I buy the idea that anything less than saccharine is an indictment, or the only good writers are Slavophiles.

And BG and Slava came to me in a dream…

~ c/o Oleg Kashin (who is spending WAY too much time on Twitter):

BG & Surkov! You know how in cheap beer commercials, there is always a set of hot twins the average Joe spies at a bar? (As if an average Joe drunk on Budweiser were more attractive to Scandanavian twins than the sober version of himself?) Anyway, If Budweiser were marketing to me, this would be the commercial. The third fellow is Andrei Makarevich. Meh. What was going on here? Political event at which musicians are kissing up? Or musical event at which poor Slava is kissing up? Anyway. So there is now some debate as to whether or not Boris has gone over to the dark side. Some people are like, hey, he’s just having a polite chat – who cares? They aren’t being helped by this, from Ekho Moskvy:

~ Борис Гребенщиков и Владимир Путин плавали по коммунальным квартирам России.

Известный музыкант Борис Гребенщиков в день рождения премьер-министра России Владимира Путина встретился с ним во сне. Об этом сам музыкант рассказал сегодня в эфире “Эха Петербурга”:

“Он мне снился сегодня. Мы с ним совершали вояж по России. По-моему, мы с ним плыли на катере сквозь квартиры коммунальные. Причём было дико красиво. Вероятно, вели разговоры. Я такого сна не помню просто в жизни своей! Я так ему благодарен! Какие силы работают на нашего президента… премьер-министра, что даже я вижу сны про него! Фантастика. Вот оккультизм настоящий”.

Alrighty then… Let’s keep in mind he smokes a lot of pot. But, is he being sarcastic, or sincere? Is it veiled criticism or harmless entertainment? It’s one thing to dream you’re sailing with Vova through communal apartments, another to issue a press release about it to your hippied-out followers. Hm. Fascinating indeed.


~ Finally, we have some pictures of the Soyuz capsule landing. For a while, I was not impressed. Looked like a piece of junk on a parachute. Then a piece of junk crashing to the dirt. Then an old piece of junk out in a field.

Then spacemen crawled out of it!!!! Wowee!

Soyuz TMA-18 Space Capsule Landing.

It’s really a metaphor for Russia, is it not? To the casual observer: junk. To the close observer: oudated junk. To the surveyor: junk surrounded by miles of nothing. But inside the junk are fascinating, adventurous, curious, educated and slightly insane people, doing astonishing things. And even the junk has stories to tell…

September 22, 2010

Found in Translation.

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 5:07 PM
Tags: , ,

My New Acquisitions.

Pelevin. Tolstaya. Kurkov. Akunin. Ulitskaya. Sorokin.
… Did I mention Pelevin?

Ok, so chances are you will have little trouble locating these souls on the shelves of your local bookshop, or at the very least, have some gregarious bookseller offer to order one of their books for you. Maybe I’ve been a bit too doomsday about it, the whole “lack of translations of contemporary Russian authors available to the English speaking world.” After all, it only took a blog post and an afternoon wandering around the library (in fairness there are 87 miles of stacks in this library) to discover the following items:

~ Living souls by Dmitry Bykov. Published in the UK by Alma Books.
~ Give Me (Songs for Lovers) by Irina Denezhkina. Published in the US by Simon and Schuster.
~ Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky. Published in the UK by Gollancz.
~ Lizka and her men by Alexander Ikonnikov. Published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail.
~ Do time, get time by Andrei Rubanov. Published in the UK by Old Street.
~ 2017 by Olga Slavnikova. Published in the US by Overlook.

And of course various poets and playwrights could be found hawking their wares to the anglosphere along the aisles. It appears that some Russian writers are in fact reaching an English speaking audience. … an American speaking audience? Not so much. Hopefully it bodes well for American literary connoisseurs that Russian oligarchs have begun buying our sportsteams. Now we just need to get our own Andrew Bromfield. (OMG is he singlehandedly responsible for every translation in the past 20 years?!)

Andrew Bromfield

is a British editor and translator of Russian works. He is a founding editor of the Russian literature journal Glas, and has translated into English works by Boris Akunin, Vladimir Voinovich, Irina Denezhkina, Victor Pelevin, and Sergei Lukyanenko, among other writers.


“Very Short Stories” by Genrikh Sapgir
“Monday Starts on Saturday” by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
“Rachmaninov” by Nikolai Bazhanov
“The Law of Eternity” by Nodar Dumbadze and Mikhail Krakovsky
“Glas: New Russian Writing” magazine (ed. by Natalia Perova)
“Lizka and Her Men” by Alexander Ikonnikov
“The Good Angel of Death” by Andrey Kurkov
“Maxim and Fyodor” by Vladimir Shinkarev
“Reasons for Living” by Dmitry Bakin
“Witch’s Tears” by Nina Sadur
“Headcrusher (novel)” by Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov

Madness. Ok, so this will give us something to read for the next month or so. But can one really glean the scene from these selections? Can one read these and make any kind of definitive statement about the post-Soviet Russian mind? Who knows… Probably one should refrain from such an endeavor anyway. Still, it’s not much to go on. Like judging American culture by a reality tv show where 6 random Americans are forced to live together. How do you know they weren’t chosen simply because they exemplified some stereotype? Or maybe one was sleeping with the producer. You don’t know. Who is Andrew sleeping with? We don’t know.

I’d come across mention of Glas twice in separate searches now, so I decided to check it out.

Glas: New Russian Writing.

It bills itself as the “best in contemporary Russian fiction in English translation.” Wow. Just what I was looking for. Well, without the boasting. (Your home page is your blurb page? really??) In addition to publishing gobs of individual authors, Glas also publishes gobs of anthologies. Collections include winners of the Russian Booker and Debut prizes, female, Jewish and young authors, stories about love, war, the Soviet experience … you get the picture. It all seems very comprehensive, if not a bit overwhelming. And not helped by the fact that we’ve gone and bound them all together in 2’s and 3’s. In order to get my paws on a couple of short stories, I had to check out about 25lbs. of book. Oof.

Wait. Anthologies! I’d said I “would actually very much appreciate a Hemon-esque, everything but the kitchen sink anthology of post-1991 Russian literature in English translation.” I did. But I was so focused on individual authors and their novels, I rather forgot to go googling for collections. It’s probably for the best. With names like “Rasskazy” and “Life stories” Russia might have taken over the world and abolished the English language before I found these online. Fuck the computer. I was upstairs in the stacks having a mild panic attack while deliberating which issues of Glas had the most relevant contents in proportion to its physical weight when Evgeny posted a link to Life Stories: Original Fiction by Russian Authors on the previous post. I know – I need a smartphonectomy. All the same I was able to just walk around the corner and find the book on the shelf. So that was convenient. From its publisher:

Masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today, these tales reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways.
Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book will go to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.

all royalties waived
all translation fees waived
100% of profits to the cause
The authors included in this fine collection are: Vladimir Voynovich, Andrey Gelasimov, Boris Grebenshchikov, Yevgeny Grishkovets, Victor Yerofeyev, Alexander Kabakov, Eduard Limonov, Dmitry Lipskerov, Sergey Lukyanenko, Vladimir Makanin, Marina Moskvina, Victor Pelevin, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Zakhar Prilepin, Dina Rubina, Dunya Smirnova, Vladimir Sorokin, Alexander Khurgin and Leonid Yuzefovich.

It’s too bad I didn’t actually buy this book and help those dying people. OTOH, I feel like I have secret superpowers walking around the BG, Eddie baby and Sorokin in my bag. Tingly, even. Ah… Oh, and it’s one rather slim paperback that weighs no more than a hamster. The unbearable lightness of unbound, unboundwith books… Finding the contemporary anthologies section was like a finding buried treasure. You dive in, grab hold of one item and parade it around: it’s mine! it’s mine! and seconds later you’ve discarded it for another shining trinket.

Like Moscow Noir, for example.

Moscow has been chomping at the bit to enter the Noir Series–with the intention of perpetrating extreme Russian menace.
Brand-new stories by:Alexander Anuchkin, Igor Zotov, Gleb Shulpyakov, Vladimir Tuchkov, Anna Starobinets, Vyacheslav Kuritsyn, Sergei Samsonov, Alexei Evdokimov, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Maxim Maximov, Irina Denezhkina, Dmitry Kosyrev, Andrei Khusnutdinov, and Sergei Kuznetsov.

Yeah, extreme Russian menace! Rock and roll! I am all about the Extreme Russian Menace, you know. I have to give Keith his props. I think he must have been correct when remarked that “those that do get published probably either fit the publisher’s preconception of what Russia is/should be or what english speakers should like.” Soviet childhoods, extreme Russian menaces, Pelevin.

And we simply cannot ignore the following editor’s note:

The stories printed were all written in the past five years. The developments in Russia’s political sphere during this time and under Vladimir Putin’s rule—total consolidation of power in the Kremlin’s hands, airtight censorship in the electronic media, the wholesale institutionalization of corruption, the all-out ascendance of former KGB personnel (especially the Leningrad KGB) to prominent posts throughout the government, the near silencing of political opposition, even the restoration of the Soviet National Anthem—have in many ways turned back the hands of Russia’s sociopolitical clock. However, Russia has also experienced its share of undeniable successes: the strengthening of its currency; the steadily rising living standards of its citizens and the emergence of a bona fide middle class; its resurgence on the international stage as a global power, etc. It is during this complicated and conflicted moment in Russian history that this new generation of Russian writers wrote the stories presented in this anthology.

Although the Soviet Union did not technically cease to exist until 1991, its disintegration was a fait accompli even before the Berlin Wall fell two years earlier. These writers don’t remember Soviet life all too well, but its genetic code is stored in some dormant memory cell in their brains that is activated when the curve of modern-day Russia hews too closely to the former Soviet matrix of societal atmosphere. They recognize the air they’ve never breathed before, and they come alive within this condition of borderline nonfreedom. They’re free people, but they’re also Russian writers, and Russian writers need a measure of nonfreedom to feel free, to realize their relevance. […]

At this moment in history, as Russia submerges into crisis, calling into question yet another economic and political model of its development, the work in this anthology reminds us that Russia’s greatest commodity—and its greatest contribution to the world—has not been oil and gas and armaments. Rather, it’s been the successive generations of Russian writers capable of examining life’s emotional and intellectual restlessness, its complexity and intensity.

Oof, submerges into crisis even… This is from the otherwise rather brilliant anthology, Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia from Tin House Books in the US. I dare say that when I asked for a Hemon-esque, everything but the kitchen sink anthology of post-1991 Russian literature in English translation, this is precisely what I’d had in mind! Right down to the, err, blurb by Hemon on the front cover. Francine Prose’s introduction said everything I had in my previous diary. “We’re reading the Russians,” she writes. Meaning, we’re reading dead 19th century Russians. Because who even knows if there is a 21st century Russian literature, or literatures? We don’t have a clue, and it is not our fault. They’re simply not published here. But we’ve always relied on literature to understand the Russians, largely because they’ve always relied on it to express themselves. Anyway, it’s simply abhorrent that we don’t have a flipping clue. So here you are: a sensibly sized anthology of the best post-Soviet Russian fiction out there. Or something.

I’m beside myself. It’s exactly what I have been searching for, all crisis mongering editors aside. I’m about a third of the way through it, and it is wonderful. Not as loquacious as their 19th century predecessors, but every bit as passionate, neurotic, sensitive, earnest, alienated, and sympathetically impractical. I’ve really enjoyed Linor Goralik, Oleg Zobern especially.

Wishes granted.

Now I just have to find a way to get them all home.

In this post:
~ Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia.
~ Life Stories: Original Fiction by Russian Authors.
~ Moscow Noir.
~ Glas: New Russian Writing.

September 17, 2010

Lost in Translation

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 5:05 PM
Tags: ,

This is not about the movie Lost in Translation. But for this post, let’s pretend Scarlett Johansson is playing the part of me and Bill Murray the part of Russian Lit. Ok?

A Request.

Q. I am interested in learning more about the current state of Russian literature. Can you please recommend 5 contemporary Russian novels that are available in English translation? (Besides Pelevin, whom I’ve already read.) Thanks so much! p.s. No sci-fi, please!

When I saw something like this question recently asked of a group of so-called Russia experts, I thought it was a reasonable enough request and began composing a response … until I was stopped dead in my tracks. I see a glut of Russian popular fiction everyday, but have no clue what kind of novels are being hailed by the Russian literati, let alone what is available in English translation. Probably no coincidence, those two facts. Chagrined, I sat back and let someone else respond. Everyone seemed to run into the same problem: there was lots to recommend, but many of them are not in English translation. Well, it is simply unacceptable that I should not know the answer to this inquiry. So I began my search and eventually came up with the following response:

A. I have been patiently waiting for an answer to your very specific question. Until you get one, here is a list of writers (in translation) people recently came up with when I asked who Russia’s leading thinkers were:

Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, Boris Akunin, Dmitry Bykov, Tatyana Tolstaya, Sergei Lukyanenko, Lyudmila Ulitskaya…

But your question was enough to get me wondering, so I looked up the recent winners of the Russian Booker Prize:

2005: Denis Gutsko’s Without a Way
2006: Olga Slavnikova’s 2017
2007: Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Matisse
2008: Mikhail Yelizarov’s Librarian
2009: Yelena Chizhova’s A Time of Women

2017 is the only one I see readily available in English translation.

Others proceeded to recommend simply reading Russian literature … in Russian. Duh. What’s the problem with that, eh? How can anyone possibly appreciate Russian literature if they don’t read it in the original? Harrumph!

1. Well, personally, I might, but I am too lazy. My vocabulary is such that I require the frequent use of dictionaries and more brainpower than I am wont to exert while reading for pleasure. Because I read for work all day (yes, in Russian too) when I read for pleasure, the idea is to take a break. I understand the philosophy of self-improvement would advise that I force myself to make the effort to regain fluency so that I might be able to read for pleasure again. It is a beautiful idea. Like quitting smoking. We’re in New Years resolution territory here…

2. I suspect that most native English speakers don’t read a lick of Russian. Or any other foreign language, for that matter. They should be denied the opportunity to read anything published outside the Anglo-lit-o-sphere? Because Americans are not already ideologically isolated enough?

3. I’ve never heard a writer boast of being “read by everyone who speaks my native language!” Mostly it is the number of languages one has been translated into that signifies the degree of one’s literary success. While there is consensus that nothing can replace the experience of reading a novel in its original language, most writers are more than happy to sacrifice some artistic merit in order to reach a wider audience.

4. And as reading novels organic to lands not your own can make you wiser about the world, exporting your novels can make the rest of the world wiser about you. I know Russia is making an effort to reach a global audience by exporting Russia Today. But really, when cultivating allies, why not aim for the cream of the crop, the intellectual elite, people with an IQ of over 100, people who can … read. Don’t complain the world doesn’t take you seriously when hard liquor and dumbed-down tv news are your main exports. Just sayin’…

So… Why are there so few translations of contemporary Russian authors available to the English speaking world?

The good news? It’s not personal or anything.

WBEZ: U.S. Publishes Few Books in Translation. (<-click to listen to the show.)

Americans don’t get the chance to read many books written by authors who aren’t from this country. That’s because just about three percent of all the books published in the United States are translated from another language. Chad Post is publisher of Open Letter Books. They’re dedicated to the translation of works of fiction here in the United States. Without small publishers like Open Letter Books, there would be hardly any translated books in our bookstores at all. Other countries are different. Chad says that more than half the books on the market in France and Spain have been translated from another language. Even Canada is way ahead of us.

(“Even Canada”!) My own personal, unscientific observations seem to confirm this. It seems contemporary Russian authors are more likely to get a translation published in the UK than here in the States.

But the problem is not entirely on our fat apathetic end. The Russians have some work to do themselves:

Russia Profile reported on the First International Congress of Translators recently held in Moscow in the article, “Gained in Translation.” While the translators know the dearth of Russian lit in the Western market is a problem and are trying to do something to fix it (primarily in that most Russian of ways: by setting up institutes), they also point to numerous culprits of their suffering.

Lack of government support:

This time the literary translators were not left to their own devices: the congress was timed to coincide with the annual 23rd Moscow International Book Fair and backed by the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications. Thus international publishers, contemporary Russian writers and even government officials could join their efforts in finding new ways of promoting Russian literature in the modern world. “Translators don’t get attention from the government. This functional vacuum has to be filled,” said Vladimir Grigoryev, the deputy head of the Agency for Press and Mass Communications, at the opening ceremony.

Lack of pay:

Literary translation is notorious for being among the most underpaid areas of academic work in Russia and elsewhere. The organizers’ plan is to set up a Translation Institute, which would not be an educational institution but a state-supported organization securing grants, especially for long-term projects. Here, not everything has to be done from scratch. “We at Pushkin House in St. Petersburg, already run the International Center for Translators for those who translate Russian literature into foreign languages,” said Vsevolod Bagno, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “We have a yearly contest for the best translations of Russian literature in four nominations and a database of published translations from Russian, but we’d like the new institution to reinforce our efforts.”

If it is not overly long and cerebral, it doesn’t meet Western expectations:

“Modern Russian literature in the West is perceived in light of stereotypes that have been piling up for decades. Against the backdrop of the great literature of the past, anything coming from Russia is expected to be prophetic and somewhat world-scale,” said Professor Oliver Ready, an Oxford scholar and translator of modern Russian authors, adding that UK publishers often complain that the reality depicted in modern Russian prose is too specific and insular.

If it is overly long and cerebral, it doesn’t meet Western needs:

Russian authors also tend to write long, complex books, which can be hard to adapt for an English-speaking audience. “I was extremely lucky to translate books by Boris Akunin and Victor Pelevin, the most published modern Russian authors, because they fit into existing niches without much adaptation. They have become really popular in the West,” said Andrew Bromfield, a prominent UK translator famous for his translations of Leo Tolstoy.

So everyone’s stuck reading Pelevin and Akunin.

The translators’ convention coincided with the Moscow International Book Fair, which hosted an “International Drawing-Room” debate for Russian and foreign participants, from which the following wisdom arose:

Voice of Russia: Russian literature produces uncloned stock.

… in 2011 Russia is to be an honourable guest at the London Book Fair and in 2012 an honourable guest in the USA. For this reason, the guests of the “International Drawing-Room”, a discussion floor arranged at the Moscow Fair for the first time, talked about the problem of promoting Russian literature on the international market, in particular, the English-language market. As the writer Dmitry Bykov said, we should make an effort towards a dramatic entrance into the English-language book world. Dmitry Bykov believes that modern Russian literature is capable of attracting the attention of this world:

“Today’s world has a marketing approach to literature. If something is a success, innumerable clones spring up. In this respect, Russia is a country where marketing strategies do not work, so Russia can be described as a provider of fresh, uncloned and unpredictable stock. Modern Russian literature is honest, it is a literature of protest, and there has always been a market for that in the West.”

Probably more so during the Cold War… Granted, we’re much more likely to be made aware of your existence if you write something politically scandalous, Rushdie-like. But still, for all our hemming and hawing about Putin in our airspace, we’re no longer inclined to read your books out of charity or prop you up to spite your masters. However much VVP has managed to roll back freedom of speech, y’all can’t even compete with Middle Eastern theocracies or the Chinese. So don’t even try. Which leads me to another factor contributing to the drought of Russian lit in American book bookstores, one that dareth not speak its name:

Russia is not hip. Impossible!, you’re thinking. Sorry, however tragic it may be, debating marketing strategies is just about a thousand times less sexy than publishing the samizdat of some poor soul forced into exile by real-live commies. But at least we have the memory of that, and our lingering Stockholm syndrome from Russian lit classes of yore. Your literary greats may be gone from our lives, but they are not forgotten. It’s more than the French can say.

Bosnian American Chicagoan wonderboy decides to whip us pathetic Americans into shape.

Because writers refuse to acknowledge reality and can easily slip into a reverie wherein capitalism and Oprah do not exist, they are either the most ideal or very worst possible candidates to take on the responsibility of introducing more foreign language writers to the English speaking world. On the one hand, I admire the whole Rise up with fists!, DIY attitude. On the other, well, do they let you market your own books, Sasha? I am referring to Aleksandar Hemon, who has edited the impressive Best European Fiction, 2010. The publisher’s decription goes like this:

Best European Fiction 2010 is the inaugural installment of what will become an annual anthology of stories from across Europe. Edited by acclaimed Bosnian novelist and MacArthur “Genius-Award” winner Aleksandar Hemon, and with dozens of editorial, media, and programming partners in the U.S., UK, and Europe, the Best European Fiction series will be a window onto what’s happening right now in literary scenes throughout Europe, where the next Kafka, Flaubert, or Mann is waiting to be discovered.

Hemon is so genius that he not only writes brilliantly, but he has the foresight to write in English, even though it is not his native language, to avoiding the very issue of translation. His native language is Bosnian. See, he’s so genius that he had the good sense to be from Bosnia while there was a war going on there. So maybe I should be less skeptical about his ability to sell escoteric lit. (I actually think he is a fantastic writer and his prose stands on its own merit. But would he have been slathered with such hype had he been from … Belgium?) Anyway, I’m as giddy as a little girl that he’s using his powers for good:

Omnivoracious: Against Eternal Provincialism: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon.

Amazon.com: In a recent interview with the Paper Cuts blog, you said: “I think American literature is crippled by the shortage of available translations.” Do you mean that the body of literature available to us as readers is incomplete, or also that American literature as an art form is not developing as fully as it should because emerging writers are not reading widely enough?

Aleksandar Hemon: Both. Literatures, cultures, writers need to communicate among themselves, to reach for and explore what might seemingly be outside their experience.

Amazon.com: In your introduction to the anthology, you expressed an urgency for translation to keep up with the “rapid developments in European literature.” What are some of these developments, and do you see them happening more rapidly in Europe than in America?

Hemon: Europe is a rapidly changing place, on every level. Immigration, post-communist transitions, the unification, steady presence of war and conflict, the inescapable challenges to the notion of national literature/culture–it all exerts pressure upon writers who must be aware of the transformational possibilities of the situation.

Amazon.com: In your mind, what needs to happen in order to get more of this writing translated, so it can be more readily available to American readers?

Hemon: You cannot wait for the mainstream publishing to snap out of their profit dreams, which have recently turned to nightmares. There has to be a kind of grassroots push, a movement, as it were, against the inherent isolationism of American capitalism as practiced in the publishing industry. There need to be grants and government support and a few publishers, mainstream and independent, who are not afraid to challenge American readership. We need to build a network of translators, publishers and readers. We hope that our annual anthology might provide an upsurge in interest for European fiction and then, as we publish it every year, become a habit to many readers. […]

Amazon.com: What percentage of these stories or excerpts were translated specifically for this book? Did the anthology launch any further translation projects?

Hemon: Pretty much all of them. Moreover, for each published piece there were 3-4 translated ones, which are now circulating in various ways. The anthology in and of itself generates translations.

Amazon.com: For you, what was the most exciting outcome of this project?

Hemon: The project is already indelible. There is no way to go back from this point–the moment it was published the anthology became essential and necessary for American literary life. If the project, somehow, failed to live on, American literature and culture will be sentenced without parole to eternal provincialism.

I am wholly in solidarity with Sasha’s righteous mission. Which is why I read the whole book. My review? Honestly? I liked his introduction best. Oh, I know. After all my bitching about no translations, I get a whole anthology of them and I am still unsatisfied. In hindsight, I don’t know if this Noah’s Ark exercise is the best method of importing contemporary writers to the promised land. With 35 writers representing 30 countries, the focus was on getting a snapshot of the European lit scene rather than uncovering unique talent, the effect was of throwing everything at us to see what would stick. I ended up with the impression that some authors were included because well, someone has to represent Luxembourg, and others may have deserved a better translator.

Bookslut has a different gripe:

The only frustrating thing about the anthology is the fact that not all of the authors have full-length books available in English (yet) — several, though, have been published in English by Dalkey Archive and others. My own list of authors to explore grew by at least a dozen after reading this, and I’m already drafting emails to publishers begging them to translate and publish some of these authors in the States. I’m more than a little sad that I haven’t been paying enough attention to European writers (I don’t keep up with their sports cars or supermodels, either, though I’m pretty well-versed in their beers and drug laws); it’s great to have Hemon help me find who to look out for. Like Dalkey Archive Press itself, this anthology is fascinating, accomplished, and absolutely crucial. America and Europe don’t always agree on much; I hope readers in both places can agree that we needed this book.

And who was chosen to represent Russia for this anthology? (drum roll…) Pelevin. I fucking kid you not. I am going to go bang my head against something hard, you can keep reading.

So what lessons can we learn from Sasha’s little experiment? First, while there must be countless literary talents who have yet to find their way into English translation, not being translated does not an unsung literary talent make. Regardless what language you are published in, it still helps to be a very good writer. Secondly, having a brilliant short story buried in an anthology isn’t going to make a splash on the American stage unless your little amuse bouche is followed by an entree. Thirdly, I think Victor Pelevin has tapped into some of that space time continuum magic he’s always writing about, because he is everywhere, Zelig-like, and it is freaking me out, man. Lastly, Hemon has put a spell on me and can make me read anything.

I sauntered over to see if my peeps at Unbound Europe have anything on offer. I’m lying. I don’t have “peeps.” But I do have a few dashing ex-professors who are publishing a slew of literature from the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe in English translation at Northwestern University press. And I do mean dashing; in fact, they may be entirely to blame for my current neurosis. But that’s beside the point. They were also the ones who introduced me to brilliant but then obscure authors like Dubravka Ugrešić. It seemed a logical place to go searching for brilliant but still obscure Russian authors. … This looks potentially interesting, if I just ignore the inclusion of Ms. Latynina. As if finding her in translation were difficult. As if avoiding assult by her deranged thoughts were even possible. Anyway, slim pickings on the Russia front at Unbound Europe.

So … we’re kind of back at square one on our search.

For myself, I would actually very much appreciate a Hemon-esque, everything but the kitchen sink anthology of post-1991 Russian literature in English translation. I think a snapshot of the good, the bad and the ugly of fiction published in post-Soviet Russia would be fascinating. Perhaps it is too much to ask for no Pelevin or Latynina or science fiction. But surely such an enterprise can be successfully undertaken. But by whom? I don’t see how literature fits into Dima’s pro-modernization push. Surkov tells us to read Dostoyevsky, and we can, because he is in translation. But what are you doing for your living, breathing writers, Slava? Perhaps the problem is actually too much dependence on the state? Maybe writers and translators should go maverick? I’d have a hard time believing Sorokin has made it abroad with federal funding (but that might be the American in me, who thinks of federal funding as if it were Santa Clause, a nice idea, but it doesn’t actually exist.) It is heartening to find presses like Open Letter Books, Dalkey Archives. Archipelago Books or even university presses making inroads into bringing literature in translation to American audiences. Still, if only 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations, you probably need a maths degree to figure the percentage of the books by Russian authors published in the U.S., and a graduate maths degree to figure the percentage of the books by living Russian authors published in the U.S. Yet there is no shortage of crap American literature in Russian.

So while I dwell upon this cruel injustice, can anyone answer our friend’s request?

Name 5 contemporary Russian novels that are: available in English translation, not by Pelevin, not science fiction.

And then go buy something from one of the small presses publishing translations, to support their efforts.

And thanks for reading.

August 18, 2010

Notes from the Underground

Filed under: Culture: U.S.,Too Much Information — poemless @ 5:35 PM

In Soviet Russia, Dostoyevsky reads You on the subway!

I recently joined Twitter and have been terribly unimpressed. Half of the “tweets” I read are recycled on/from facebook, half of them are cliquish in a way that makes me feel like I am shyly eating lunch/eavesdropping at the popular kids’ table, and the vast majority of them are of positively no interest to me at all. Except for one shining example. The Paris Review.

I don’t read the Paris Review. In fact, I am only aware of its function as something one totes about like an extra limb, usually belonging to moody hipsters with advanced English degrees, forced to spend hours working at the local bookstore information desks, the weight of their fates so unbearable that an extra limb is required to keep them propped up at said desks – and here enters the Paris Review. But when I signed up for Twitter, I searched “books/literature” as a subject of interest, thinking I might stalk my favorite authors, and stumbled upon the Paris Review Twitter feed. Why is it so brilliant, so worth having to slog through a thousand posts about the price of Russian grain for? Their advice column. I mean, I’m not saying it’s any good, that you should take it, but there is something profoundly entertaining about cynical, pretentious literary types giving each other advice. I dare say it is art. Well, anyway, it’s better than whatever you (and I) are posting on Twitter…

Excerpts from “THE PARIS REVIEW DAILY: Ask The Paris Review.”

I read a Richard Yates novel. And I’m fucking depressed. Like wow, what a downer. Give me something to cheer me up. —Jeff Swift

PR: I’m not sure how to recommend this, but are you familiar with “I Am a Bunny?”

Girls. I’m girl crazy. It’s ’cause it’s summer. I’d like to calm myself down. What should I do? —Ronnie

PR: “The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles,” by Louise Ade Boger. This one is new to my collection. I got it off the two-dollar cart at the Strand last week and already I have found it an indispensible settler of the mind. I know what you’re thinking: for a diseased one-track Bonobo like yourself, it’s only the tiniest baby-step from furniture to sex. Trust me. Ms. Boger is an artist. She was bored writing the thing, bored shitless from sentence one, and she manages to communicate that feeling to the reader in real time. To say “The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles” is 427 pages long is to say nothing. The pages are giant; the text bicolumniar; the black-and-white plates, for all intents and purposes, useless. Reading “The Complete Guide” is like popping six Ambien and hitting yourself on the head with a brick.

Can you recommend any books that will make interesting people approach me if I read them on the subway? During “A Moveable Feast,” people came up and quoted entire passages verbatim, and it really enhanced the reading experience. —Alexandra Petri

It was the last question which first caught my attention. You want interesting people to approach you on the subway? I spend an hour of my life everyday trying to prevent this. The subway is the one place I want everyone to be as innocuously normal and silent as humanly possible. And I certainly don’t want them approaching me. But then, as I read the answer, I thought there was something wise and funny about different subway lines having different literary preferences. And then again, I was reminded of how reading on the subway is not a universal experience. This is a realization I had only recently, when maryb at Alone With Each Other posted something about Kindles, etc. replacing hardcover books, and paperbacks will be for the poor. As someone who works with rare books, I went into hysterics about the hardcover’s imminent extinction, but at some point managed to have this exchange:

maryb: And paperbacks will be purchased by people who want to read at home or who rely on the library or book sales, the way hardbacks are now…

ME: …do people really have books they only read at home and books they only read on the go? Generally speaking, the book I’m reading on the train is the one I’m picking back up at lunch and getting into bed with at night.

maryb: You big city people. Here in St. Louis there are no trains to read on except for one scrawny metro line that hardly anybody rides. The fact that I carry a book around with me makes me an aberration. So yes, there are many
people who intend ONLY to read at home.

Somehow I’d gotten the idea into my head that trains exist to 1) get a person from point A to point B and 2) give a person time to read. Of course one can also read at a cafe, the beach, park, doctors’ offices, even in one’s own bed. But the idea that people just sit around, in their own homes, reading… it kind of terrified me. I don’t know why. Obviously sitting around watching tv seems plausible. I think I have a phobia or something. If reading a book is on my list of things to do, and I am at home, I leave. That’s why god created cafes, right? Unless of course it is that certain kind of foul weather morning where curling up under the duvet by the window with a cup of coffee and a book is acceptable, nay, obligatory on aesthetic grounds alone. Anyway, now I am obsessed with reading-on-trains culture.

Are we doing it to avoid people?, to pass the time?, because it is the only chance we have to read?, to seduce men?

According to the website CTA Tattler, Women El riders read more books than men:

Since December, I’ve been recording what books people have been reading, and 17 out of 21 El readers were female. Of those 17 women, 13 were in their 20s or 30s, based on my “best guess.” (You should see me guess
weights at the State Fair.)

To be fair, I see men read. I think I must live on a well-read line. Apropos of nothing, I have been doing my own unscientific study of El riders’ habits, and most Blackberry users are women, whereas most iPhone use is by men. Also, it is mostly men watching tv on their mobile devices. Certainly mostly men laughing while watching tv their mobile devices. The mobile device has almost entirely wiped out the Sudoku fad of a few years back, while book readership appears to have remained steady. I don’t see many Kindle-type things, and I think people look ridiculous reading them. Primarily because such people are usually simultaneously fumbling with their iPods, not hearing their iPhones ringing and checking their e-mail on their Blackberries during the very 20 minute trip while they are flashing about their e-books. It all seems more satirical or dystopian than inspiring.

Here is another take on the literature of the commute:

The Guardian: Give us more literature on public transport: Moscow metro’s murals of Dostoevsky apparently risk making commuters dangerously depressed. But surely travelling with only adverts to read is a far grimmer experience.

According to psychologists, no good will come of the new murals in Moscow’s Dostoevskaya underground station. The vast, black, white and grey depictions of Dostoevsky himself, and the characters from his novels, will make people “afraid to ride the subway”; they will encourage suicidal impulses; they’re depressing. But as a regular London tube traveller, I actually found myself feeling a little jealous. I think they look pretty great, and while they might not actually brighten up a journey they’d certainly make it more interesting.

I become panicky if I don’t have something to read or look at while travelling. If I’ve timed it so badly that I finish a book on a journey, don’t have anything new to read, and have finished/can’t bear to start Metro or whatever free paper has been pushed at me, then I will eventually stoop to reading the adverts while waiting for a train. (It’s less stressful once I’m on board; I may be lucky enough to stumble on one of the Poems on the Underground posters – as part of my pledge to learn more poetry by heart I have been trying to use my tube journeys to commit them to memory). But how much better would it be to be able to gaze on scenes from “Crime and Punishment,” or a mural of the great man, instead?

I don’t think we Londoners can swipe Dostoevsky, of course: we’d need an author with a more British flavour. I think I might campaign for Dickens at London Bridge to start with – an agonised Pip or a worried Nancy would definitely while away a few delays. In New York at Publishers Weekly, meanwhile, they’re wondering about “Paul Auster in Park Slope? Scenes from Bellow’s Mr Sammler’s Planet in an uptown Manhattan Station? Some kind of snarled John Ashbery mural in the confusing transfer hallways of Delancey Street?” Which literary landmarks would you like to see on the way into work?

Which literary landmarks would you like to see on the way into work?

I don’t see how art could make anyone more suicidal than the scenes we are already forced to observe on the train each day. We used to have poetry inside the trains. And at one stop, some artschool student (I presume, since only artschool students use this stop) has done a kind of cheap poetry installation, taping one line on each pillar, so it reads differently from different angles, except it is bad poetry… Probably Chicago could not do much better on the positive vibes front than scenes from “Crime and Punishment,” as our literary claims to fame are Nelson Algren and Sara Paretsky. What people don’t mention in the “OMG those axe killer paintings in the Moscow Metro are depressing!” editorials is that much of Moscow’s subway system creates a kind of subterranean public palace, with great art and crystal chandeliers and marble floors and scale, oh, the scale… They are works of art in themselves, these stations, and momentary escapes from the realities above (well, hypothetically, if no one else were using them.) So let Muscovites be critical and demanding about their subway art and literature. The axe killers and dictators have free rein outdoors, let the innocent people have the damn train stations. It’s a bit the opposite in Chicago. Our El stops look like sewers or Siberian wooden sidewalks and are already home to the psychos and dictators. A bit of art would be nice. Some literature would comfort us during our brief exile from civilization.

We do have a bit of the Berlin Wall, but frankly, that only serves to reinforce the feelings of being trapped and abused that the CTA is so so very brilliant at imposing on its riders. A perfect marriage of symbolism if ever there were one…

What am I reading on the train these days? I have recently checked out the following:

~ Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić. She is one of my favorite writers ever in the history of the universe.

~ Best European Fiction 2010 ed. Alexandar Hemon. He is one of my favorite writers ever in the history of the universe. I don’t know what kind of editor he’ll be though.

~ Myth of the Russisan Intelligentsia by Inna Kochetkova. This looks incredibly boring and dry, despite having an intriguing, dishy title.

And am anxiously awaiting:

~ Martin Cruz Smith’s latest mystery book. I know, you thought I was a snob. I also remain of the opinion that Tim of White Sun of the Desert should do a similar kind of murder novel set on the Sakhalin oil rig.

~ The September issue of Vogue. Though this tome falls into that category of works which are best enjoyed while curled up under a duvet on a rainy morning. For aesthetic reasons? Well, it’s also just too damned heavy to tote to the train. So heavy it that, now that I think about it, it could probably serve to prop up a malnourished, depressed MFA or two.

What are you reading, hiding behind on trains and propping yourselves up with?

August 6, 2010

Odds & Ends: Civilization and its Discontents Edition

“To me, culture is, first and foremost, a matter of literature.” That’s what Dmitry “Collapse Gap” Orlov says. But what of those who are unable to read? Not because they are pathetic saps with the misfortune to be born in a country where the skill of literacy is only appreciated in as much as it gets Oprah to make you buy things, even if they are books. But because you are blind? Or something? For clear (or blurry, as it were) reasons, I have been contemplating the phenomenon of audio books. No. I couldn’t live like that. Celebrity culture has infiltrated every other aspect of entertainment. I don’t want to hear the voice of an Oscar winning actor when I am escaping into literature. But I do need to read. Otherwise I will be reduced to a person who only gets information from my circle of friends and family and neighbors and coworkers, the tv, or the radio. Like the rest of America. Next thing you know, I will be joining the Tea Party and having opinions about “American Idol.” I’d try to download podcasts (a word that already smacks of obsolescence) but would not know how to do that blind. I have no ear for music. What would I do to nourish my soul, inform my opinions, fill the space & time between crawling into bed and falling into slumber? I know what you are thinking. Uhm, get a mate?

It’s on my list of to-do’s. But right now I want to share with you some things I have been able to read, or read about, recently. Unfortunately, the gift of sight does not come without a price. Sometimes your eyes will fall upon words that make you truly wish you were blind. Then again, sometimes Dmitry Orlov is a genius.

I. (Oh, and I am preparing the ground for an imminent Russian invasion of America, btw.)

Moscow Diaries: “Hello, goodbye.”

True/Slant.com has finally died a proper death, but let it be known it held on to its quaint values of paying bloggers and discouraging comments until its last day, and did not give up the good fight before It Girl Julia Ioffe was able to present this bizarre and perplexing defense to her critics:

Because who really believes in the virgin peachiness of the Yeltsin era? Who really thinks Kasparov or his cohort are a realistic choice to lead Russia? And really — and this is a question for all the commenters who accuse me of subterfuge and of preparing the ground for an imminent American invasion of Russia — really who is rooting for Russia’s demise? Who? To be brutally honest: no one in the world give that much of a shit about Russia to actively want America to take over. Maybe you’ve heard about how insular and navel-gazing Americans are? And maybe apathy is a more apt definition of a “Russophobe,” but then it isn’t much of the toothy ogre you’re looking to beat your chest about and make you feel once again to be the fulcrum of world history, is it?

It’s no concern of mine whether she is raving mad foaming at the mouth with hatred for her native land (I go there sometimes too) or she is so cool and disinterested she can’t be bothered to form an opinion one way or another. But it is a concern of mine when people open the door and allow logic to escape while pontificating about US-Russia relations. In quick order, actual responses to her rhetorical questions:

1) A lot of those navel-gazing Americans, actually. 2) Kasparov or his cohort and anyone giving them money or a soapbox, one expects. 3) What’s stranger, that anyone could believe this young woman is preparing the ground for an American invasion of Russia, or that she could believe it necessary to use her last T/S post to defend against such an accusation? 4) “no one in the world give that much of a shit about Russia to actively want America to take over.” What does this sentence even mean? Giving a shit about a country => wanting America to take it over? I understand it to imply the opposite among people who are not Ahmed Chalabi. People want to take over places because they care about them? If you are accused of not liking Russia, you are probably being accused of not caring about Russia, not caring too much. No one in the world cares very much about Russia? As much as anyone in the world cares very much about any country, it seems to me that the risks involved in not caring about Russia make the alternative far more appealing. So at least a few of us do. Re: this “takeover,” are you talking military takeover or ideological or financial takeover? Are you referring to official takeover, or the use of money, power and public relations to achieve significant enough influence to ensure Russia acts in the interests of America before its own? … Clearly Julia Ioffe is no toothy ogre – she’s quite the beauty in fact, and probably harmless, given her naivety: apathy is not dangerous or cause for chest beating? Oh? Beneath Ioffe’s flippant remarks, it seems real concerns remain unaddressed.

What have we learned today, readers? You can fight fire with fire, and strawmen with strawmen, but I’d advise against fighting fire with straw…

… or fighting ideas with fire.

II. How hot is it in Moscow? What is 451°F in Celsius?

Some opposition activist took a lighter to Surkov’s book.

Coincidentally, the activist was arrested that very night for his involvement in a protest against the destruction of a local forest. Don’t tell him books come from trees.

Все произошло в пятницу вечером, когда Виталий Шушкевич отмечал свой день рождения в компании друзей и не только в районе станции метро «Китай-город». На праздник пришли также Мария Дрокова из кремлевского проекта «Наши» и Мария Сергеева — бывшая активистка «Молодой Гвардии», которая всем запомнилась призывом не ругать русские машины. Среди подарков имениннику была и зажигалка с книгой речей и статей господина Суркова. Несмотря на присутствие среди молодых людей комиссара «Наших», Виталий Шушкевич книгу сжег.

Image source: Live Journal user plucer.

So nice to see the young champions of democracy and civil rights holding a good old-fashioned book burning. That’s the spirit! Though I’m not sure we can really justify setting unnecessary fires in Russia’s current incendiary condition… Still, I’m sure that’s one less beach babe who will be turned into a Nashist zombie, carrying out Surkov’s wicked, wicked plan to modernize the country and replace conscription with an army of giant felt vegetables. Good work, Shushkevich.

Image source: Live Journal user brainw45h.

Image source: Idiot.fm.

Looks like Slava has taken his own advice, “Innovate, gentlemen!,” and is branching out into new methods for achieving creepiness.

Speaking of the Ministry of Ideology:

III. Art as Ammunition!

ARTicle: “Mightier than the Bayonet?”

One of my favorite topics is propaganda. It is often taken to mean the dissemination of misleading or biased or plainly untrue information, rather than the promotion of any agenda, be it noble or malicious. I think it is because we believe ourselves capable of real objectivity. Like the swing voters. Or Julia. As if taking no personal position on anything were more responsible than taking a firm but well-informed one. But of course no one is omniscient, and some things are worth fighting for. Some agendas are worth promoting. The AIC looks at the role of Soviet propaganda posters in the fight against the Nazis:

The word propaganda might initially sound pejorative. Propaganda has been historically perceived as a malevolent method of spreading false rumors. But might we also interpret propaganda as a means of providing a nation courage and willingness to fight in the face of immeasurable odds? Such was the task of the Soviet news agency (TASS) window-posters created in the Soviet Union during the Second World War—and such is the content of Windows on the War, a massive exhibition of these “propaganda” posters that will be mounted at the Art Institute next summer.

Propagandistic posters are usually focused on bolstering support on the home front and distanced from the reality of the battlefield. However, the makers of the TASS Windows had a different idea: to use their creative skills as ammunition in the fight against the Germans. Art became a weapon.

The poster above, number 1000, acts as a visual manifesto for the TASS studio. Above the picture is a quote by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the acclaimed Russian Futurist poet and founder of the ROSTA Windows—predecessors of TASS in the 1920s and the inspiration for the TASS Window project as a whole. The quote reads, in translation, “I want the pen to be equal to the bayonet”—a wish visually manifested in this image. We see Hitler being attacked by three bayonets, alongside a pencil and ink pen. In fact, if we follow Hitler’s gaze, he seems to be staring directly at the hands holding these two tools. The artists, writers, and poets of TASS, it would seem, have succeeded—they have “killed” the enemy’s spirit, while boosting the morale of Soviet citizens with this symbolic defeat. Finally, as Mayakovsky wished, the pen and pencil are on equal footing with the traditional weapons of war.

There was a bona fide sense that producing these TASS Windows was as important as being at the front. In the Soviet Union, the artists who created the posters became beloved cultural icons, as important as military generals. They received state medals and great renown for their work. To this day, surviving former Soviet citizens alive at the time of the TASS Windows can name the artists by heart—artists such as Sokolov-Skalya, Solov’ev, Shukhmin, and the Kukryniksy.

Surrounding the production of the TASS Windows are stories of passion, fervor, and intense labor. The artists would gather, regardless of abominable weather or the advancing enemy attack on Moscow, to create a new poster virtually every day of World War II. Not unlike the Red Army soldiers, the artists and writers labored in inhospitable conditions for the sake of the war effort. Because of the cultural importance of these posters and the iconic status of these artists and writers, heroic or wistful cultural myths came to surround the studio as time went on. According to some anecdotes, TASS posters were carried to the Front by the soldiers and were used to intimidate the enemy. Some TASS artists and writers were even driven to the Front itself so that they might absorb the details of war to imbue later drawings with veracity. The artists and writers of the TASS Windows truly felt their art to be one of the most powerful weapons against the Nazi invaders.

–Julia A., intern in the Department of Prints and Drawings

This post is from the “Countdown to TASS” series leading up to the exhibition of Soviet propaganda posters at the Art Institute of Chicago next year. I mention this because the exhibition will be part of the Soviet Experience arts festival, a “14-month-long showcase of works by artists who created under (and in response to) the Politburo of the Soviet Union” which will be held at numerous arts institutions throughout Chicago from 2010-2011. Hopefully if you are in town, you will have the opportunity to check it out.

IV. Russian Lit. 101.

A Good Treaty: “The Tale of How Aleksandr Pochkov Quarreled with Vladimir Vladimirovich”

I don’t know what it is about constituent services and Russia, but no combination of subjects makes a more ideal setting in which to employ the literary devices of the absurd and grotesque. Behold!

In which AGT translates an incredible display of pathos and mockery that is the following exchange between an angry blogger and the nation’s leader:

Do you know why we’re burning?

Because it’s all fucked. I’ll explain. I have a dacha in a village 153 km [95 miles] from Moscow, in the Tverskaia oblast’. This village is the sort of place where everyone lives nose-to-nose and shares common fences, or — like my neighbor and me — no fences at all. I’ve got nothing to hide from him and don’t need the fucking thing. And since he’s a local, he also looks after my house when I’m away, even mowing my lawn. After all, what’s good for his cows does no harm to my grass. The lawn grows back fast. But let’s get back to the fires.

In this village under those asshole communists, whom everyone shits on, there were three reservoirs for fighting fires [pozharnye prudy], an alarm bell hung (which was sounded in case of a fire), and miraculously there was even a fire truck. Now sure there was just one for three villages — but there was still a truck. And then came Mr. Democrat and his friends to fuck everything up. First they filled in the reservoirs and sold the land to developers. Next they divvied off the fire truck to God knows where (aliens probably snatched it), and they changed the alarm bell into a phone (fucking “modernization”). Only the piece of shit doesn’t work because they forgot to connect the line. There’s still a fireman, yes, but he’s got nothing left but a helmet and a coat (left over from those terrible communists). Here’s how he works: about fifteen years ago, a fire started in the neighboring village. They promptly sent us a messenger, and we ran back to help put it out. Our fireman got dressed in his uniform, grabbed two buckets, filled them with water and (this part is still a mystery to me) hopped on a bicycle, and came with us to put out the fire. It was laughter and sin together. Someone called [another] fire department, but they only arrived at the end of everything (five hours later) because they had to come from Tver’. Using everything within reach — sand, water, even spitting — we somehow managed to save all but one house.

Do I have any questions? [In response to the government soliciting citizens to write in.] Where are our tax dollars going? Why every year do we slip further and further toward a more primitive social order? Fuck the innovation center in Skolkovo if we don’t even have something as elementary as fire trucks! Why did there used to be people like the forest rangers, who warned people about fires and quickly conveyed the information to firefighters, so it wasn’t allowed to reach residences? I don’t want a telephone in the village — I want reservoirs for fighting fires and I want my alarm bell back. Give me back the fucking bell and dig me another reservoir, and I’ll fill it in and take care of it myself. If the regional authorities are game, just give me the space.

Understand me, Mr. Bureaucrat, Russia doesn’t need all your shitty genius ideas. Well before you, smart Russians — real men [muzhiki] — already figured this stuff out. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. It was invented a long time ago and it works just fine, as long as you keep your nose out of our business.* Stop charging me taxes, or just cut off my pension deductions. I’m not going to live to retirement age in this kind of life, anyway. With the [saved] money, I’ll buy a fire truck for three villages and sleep soundly, knowing nobody will take it away from my people, from my neighbors, because that bitch will be ours and we’d kill anyone who tried. If you deputies and distinguished officials piss on us because we actually give a shit about ourselves and our neighbors, then let us live the way we want, happily and in peace [schastlivo i khorosho].

[But] we don’t expect much from you. We all understand that your life principle is that everyone around you should need you. But you’re mistaken. It’s you who needs us — and in a big way. Believe me.

So give me back my alarm bell, you bitches, and shove your fucking phone up your asses.

I ask you to convey my letter to the Kalyazinskii Region authorities, in the Tverskaia oblast’.

Thank you in advance. ~top_lap

Dear honorable Internet user,

At the end of the workday today, inhaling (as did all of Moscow) the smoke of the forests burning outside the city, with great interest and pleasure did I learn of your assessment of the summer fires situation that’s befallen central Russia.

Fair’s fair, one ought to point out that Russia hasn’t had such high temperatures for over 140 years — not even under the communists, that is.

This at least partly vindicates the authorities, who — while certainly responsible for fighting natural disasters — are only for the first time encountering something of this size on such a scale.

However, in general, I agree with your comments.

You are, of course, a remarkably plainspoken and direct person. All the more power to you! [Prosto molodets]

And you are undoubtedly a man of letters. If you had made your living as a writer, you could be living — like Lenin’s favorite writer Gorky — in Capri.**

However, even there you wouldn’t feel yourself entirely safe, insomuch as both Europe and the U.S. face the same mass-scale natural disasters. Suffice it to recall how many forests burned in Europe last year or the year before.

Despite all our problems and troubles, I hope you and I both make it to retirement age.

All necessary funds for disaster management and other pressing issues have already been dispatched from the federal budget to reimburse victims.

If you provide your address, your governor will receive an alarm bell right away.

Vladimir Putin

But what A Good Treaty, and shockingly, everyone who has written on the topic of this fantastic exchange, fails to mention, or even possibly be aware of, is that the entire correspondence was conducted not between the blogger and the Premier at all, but between their dogs!

A dreary world indeed, gentlemen…

V. Smackdown: Orlov and Jesus v. Hitler, Lenin, Calvin and yer teevees.

ClubOrlov: “Miserable Pursuits.”

This is one of the best little Orlov pieces I have read in a while. I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. Here are some excerpts:

The Russian author Eduard Limonov wrote of his experiences with poverty in America. To his joy, he discovered that he could supplement his cash earnings with public assistance. But he also quickly discovered that he had to keep this joy well hidden when showing up to collect his free money. It is a curious fact that in America public assistance is only made available to the miserable and the downtrodden, not to those who are in need of some free money but are otherwise perfectly content. Although it is just as possible to be poor and happy in America as anywhere else, here one must make a choice: to avoid any number of unpleasant situations, one must be careful to hide either the fact that one is poor, or the fact that one is happy. If free public money is to be obtained, then only the latter choice remains.

It is another curious fact that vast numbers of Americans, both rich and poor, would regard Limonov’s behavior as nothing short of despicable: a foreign author living in America on public assistance while also earning cash! It seems reasonable that the rich should feel that way; if the poor can’t be made miserable, then what exactly is the point of being rich? But why should the poor particularly care? Another cultural peculiarity: what dismays them is not the misappropriation of public funds. Tell them about the billions wasted on useless military projects, and they will reply with a yawn that this is just business as usual. But tell them that somewhere some poor person is eating a free lunch, and they will instantly wax indignant. Amazingly, Americans are great believers in Lenin’s revolutionary dictum: “He who does not work, does not eat!” One of the rudest questions you might hear from an American is “What do you do for a living?” The only proper response is “Excuse me?” followed by a self-satisfied smirk and a stony silence. Then they assume that you are independently wealthy and grovel shamefully.

Most shockingly, there are many poor Americans who are too proud to accept public assistance in spite of their obvious need for it. Most Russians would regard such a stance as absurd: which part of “free money” don’t these poor idiots like—the fact that it’s money, or the fact that it’s free? Some Russians who are living in the US and, in trying to fit in to American society, have internalized a large dose of the local hypocrisy, might claim otherwise, but even they, in their less hypocritical moments, will concede that it is downright foolish to turn down free money. And rest assured, they will mop up every last penny of it. Mother Russia didn’t raise any dummies.

But let us not blame the victim. What causes these poor souls to leave money on the table is just this: they have been brainwashed. The mass media, most notably television and advertising, are managed by the well-to-do, and incessantly hammer home the message that hard work and self-sufficiency are virtuous while demonizing the idle and the poor. The same people who have been shipping American jobs to China and to India in order to enhance their profits want it to be generally understood that the resulting misery is entirely the fault of the miserable. And while the role of the pecuniary motive may be significant, let us not neglect to mention the important fact that producing mass misery is a high-priority objective in and of itself. […]

And so, a poor but happy and carefree future may yet await a great many of us, both idle rich and idle poor—one happy though rather impoverished family. But in order to achieve that we would have to change the culture. Let it be known that free lunch is a very good thing indeed, no mater who’s eating it or why, and never mind that Lenin said that “He who does not work, does not eat.” And while we are at it, let’s also dispense with the hackneyed adage that “Work will set you free” (Arbeit Macht Frei) which the Nazis liked to set in wrought iron atop the gates of their concentration camps. Let us consign the communists and the fascists and the capitalists to the proverbial scrapheap of history! Let us instead gratuitously quote Jesus: “Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow. They labor not, neither spin. And yet for all that I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his royalty, was not arrayed like unto one of these… Therefore take no thought saying: What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or Wherewith shall we be clothed? … Care not therefore for the day following. For the day following shall care for itself. Each day’s trouble is sufficient for the same self day.” Amen.

The Limonov book in question is, It’s me, Eddie, and I think it is the most memorable work I have read by him, probably because it hit a lot of my American nerves. It is also this novel that features his astonishment at the “It’s not my problem” refrain commonly heard in America, which I mentioned in my piece on the hoarders. It’s Limonov, so it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I imagine that if you are reading this blog, you can handle this book, and so I think all of you should read it if you haven’t yet.

Note to Dmitry: It appears some miserable pursuits pay off:

VI. The Power of Negative Thinking.

USA Today: “Russians are less depressed than Americans.”

No word on if it’s anything to do with Americans reading USA Today

Despite what many social observers have described as a generally dark and brooding take on life, a new report suggests that Russians are actually less likely than Americans to be depressed.
In fact, researchers have uncovered indications that the Russian cultural tendency to dwell on the negative may ultimately insulate them from feelings of distress when engaged in self-reflection.

“Among Westerners, focusing on one’s negative feelings tends to impair well-being, but among Russians, that is not the case,” study co-author Igor Grossmann, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan, said in a university news release.

“Russians focus more on their negative feelings than Americans do,” Grossmann explained, “but they spontaneously distance themselves from their emotions to a greater extent than Americans, who tend to immerse themselves in their recalled experiences.”[…]

The Russians appeared to experience less distress than the Americans after retelling the experience, and placed blame less often on the person involved in the incident. The Russians were also able to immediately distance themselves from their recollections, even while discussing them — a skill linked to less distress and feelings of blame, the study authors noted.

Culture, concluded the authors, has an impact on the emotional and cognitive consequences of bad experiences.

What? You mean our culture which practically criminalizes and literally pathologizes normal human emotions like unhappiness actually makes us more distressed and ashamed?

Get. Out.

Alright, dear readers. I am now going to go ruminate on my unhappiness and misfortune in the hopes it staves off depression. Thanks for stopping by.

June 11, 2010

Lost Cosmonaut: Book Review

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 6:03 PM
Tags: ,

Sad Teletubbies, Elista, Kalmykia. c.Daniel Kalder.

I recently got to thinking about the difference between a blogger and a journalist. It’s a terrible subject so I only thought about it for a few seconds before I settled on, “journalists are paid.” But now I’ve found another difference: Bloggers can write reviews of books that were published 4 years ago. Which kinda throws a wrench in the CW…

I don’t read many travel narratives. I went through a phase where I collected them, but I could never get past the first chapter before deciding I not only knew how the story ends, but I’m pretty sure the author was that jerk I used to see in the stolovaya being all chummy with the scary abacus lady or that girl with the overwhelming goodness and lack of personality particular to a breed of Western girls studying in Russia. I even wrote one too. Because when something deranged happens every day of your life, you have to write about it. Like vomiting to avoid alcohol poisoning. The problem is this: the same deranged things happen to everyone who writes these books. It’s all new to the author of course, but not to anyone who has already read a travel narrative, personal memoir or pseudo-autobiographical novel about Russia by a Westerner. So I passed by Daniel Kalder’s Lost Cosmonaut repeatedly until the day came when I’d read all the other books in that section of the local library, except Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Diary which I don’t think I could bear. (A typo just gave me brilliant idea for a children’s book: “Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Dairy”.) Also, I am not crazy interested in Udmurtia or Kazan. What’s going on there? Nothing.

A co-worker of mine and I were laughing today at the crazy synopses people put in WorldCat records. “Epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything.” Ok, that’s helpful.

Lost Cosmonaut is an epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything. Specifically as nothing and everything is experienced by a noncoformist Scot in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia.

If you are interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because not much in English is written about them and you don’t have a choice. If you are not interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because it’s not really very informative about these places anyway. You could be reading about anywhere. Or nowhere. Which is the point.

Kalder sets off with a mission to introduce the world to forgotten an unknown peoples and places. It begins with a manifesto:


(Excerpts from the resolutions passed at the first international congress of Anti- Tourists
at the Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent, Kazakhstan, October 1999)

As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing
amazing about the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids of Egypt. They
are as banal and familiar as the face of a Cornflakes Packet.

Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere.

The duty of the traveller therefore is to open up new zones of experience. In our over
explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban
blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid.

The only true voyagers, therefore, are anti- tourists. Following this logic we declare that:

The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable.

The anti-tourist eschews comfort.

The anti-tourist embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels.

The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings.

The anti-tourist scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil, who attempts to

penetrate danger zones such as Afghanistan. The only thing that lies behind this is

vanity and a desire to brag.

The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year.

The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones.

The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility.

The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art.

The anti-tourist believes beauty is in the street.

The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.

The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.

The anti-tourist loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.

At one point Kalder quotes the end of Gogol’s Dead Souls and answers the question of what lay ahead for Russia: “poor people and junk.” If the moral of the story were that every provincial Russian city is miserable in the same way (general disrepair, awful weather, egomaniacal leader, Stalinist factory, ethnic population with little or no recollection of their heritage as a result of centuries of occupation and systematic assimilation, dive hotel where the rooms are outfitted with radios you can’t turn off and no hot water, fat American men trawling for wives, Brezhnev era apartment blocks, depressing cafe and nightclub …) well, I’d have gotten through the first chapter and decided I knew how the story ends. Been there. Done that. The names were different (Pskov, Uglich, Suzdal…) but I’ve experienced the radio you can’t turn off and it is particular hell that cannot be underestimated. And I’m pretty sure the most depressing cafe in the universe is in Uglich. But that wasn’t the moral of the story. And I wasn’t prepared for the ending.

At times Kalder is a kamikaze thrill seeker, presenting his surroundings the world with all the grace and humility of an eXile deathporn spread. He’s really into Peter the Great’s collection of preserved mutant babies and Ilyumzhinov’s egomania. Russia is cruel and psycho. Lick it up baby, lick it up.

Then he gets really existential about the psychological effect of living in a place the rest of the world does not know exists. He muses that globalization makes life easier. We see an for McDonalds, Pepsi, Mercedes and are immediately connected to everyone else who has seen those ads. A man in London is eating the same cheeseburger as a man in Houston. They are not alone. Anyone who’s been in Russia or other Commie’d out countries when there were no or few corporate ads has understood this. All those nameless remont chasovs can really become unsettling. When you only have uniquely named stores in your town, when the billboards only advertize your local dictator, you are estranged from the rest of the world. Or something.

Realizing there is nothing shocking to see in these outposts he becomes obsessed with the nothingness, the boredom, the profound insignificance of his surroundings. Zen-like. (The combined fascination with the grotesque and the mundane leaves the reader feeling a little psychotic.) Eventually he does give himself completely over. But not to the nothingness. Or the freakishness. But to things as they are. To the efforts people make, the dignity they maintain, when dealt a mediocre deck. Nothing exclusively Russian about that. Except that Russians are perhaps more honest and upfront about their crap deck than rest of us. No sense in pretending about it.

There are many things I really liked about this book. The gonzo journalist tone is reminiscent of the eXile, which I really miss. He’s a pretty good and funny writer. Who happens to be interested in something that interests me. It is also endearing to watch someone else go through the stages of grief people with souls tend to go through when they try to get to know Russia. Like me. In fact, I have many selfish reasons for loving this book. The most obnoxious being that Kalder reminds me of this strange boy from college I hung out with for a year. Anyway. Kalder makes a lot of lists, which I too enjoy. Lists. He takes photos of random stuff and calls it “The Secret History of the World” – photodocumentation of things others walk past and never see. I liked that. He makes up entire scenes as if briefly lost in reverie while writing. He can be irreverently crass but it’s not an act, nor is the painfully sweet and beautiful observations he makes about things most people don’t notice. A little girl he catches a glimpse of in a dank cafe with her mother whose entire life he manages to invest himself in emotionally before she leaves – vanished forever. A self-promoting pagan preist who just makes up everything and even has a shrine to himself, but whom Kalder defends as not a fraud or a loser but just like the rest of us, making it up as we go along, seeking fame, trying to give some meaning and staying power to our unnoticed lives. Instead of getting angry at one local authority whom he expects to set him up with important people but can only get him a meeting with a local museum tour guide or theater director, Kalder thinks, well, he did his job, they did theirs, they don’t owe me anything beyond that. They didn’t even owe me that.

At the end, a tv anchor asks him what’s wrong with Russia. “Look around! It’s terrible. Other countries are not like this. Why is Russia like this?” She’s clearly not happy with the state of affairs. That’s for someone else to discuss, Kalder thinks. Let someone else make a profound appeal for democracy. From their warm safe lives in the West. Experts making profound appeals for democracy are a dime a dozen. Fuck them.

I really liked that last bit.

You should go check out his website now.

November 25, 2009

A Veritable Cornucopia of Links.

For your holiday reading pleasure.


Inside Higher Ed: Palintology. ~speculates on Sarah Palin’s favorite work of postmodern theory (Jean Baudrillard?) and employs the phrase “performative maverickiness.”

Jeffrey Feldman: “…Why People Like to Stuff People Like You into Ovens” ~explains how to deal with people spouting violent ideology. Starting with: Don’t be afraid.

Chicago Reader: A Kink in the Campaign. ~profiles the S&M master challenging a Chicago Machine candidate for office.

Natalia Antonova: Russia is a “criminal state”? Er… ~calls out Bill Browder for political posturing.


Why has the United States not signed on to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

… or the Land Mine Ban Treaty?

Russia, meanwhile introduced a permanent ban on capital punishment, offered to reduce Co2 emissions between 20 percent and 25 percent below 1990s levels by 2010, (which appears to be more than the US is committing to), and has agreed not to fine Ukraine for the next few months, scrapping the tought talk for, ahem, cordial humour. Apparently Putin’s also planning Georgian reunification, too?


RIAN: Putin’s lost female tiger found. ~even Vova’s cats sometimes run off…

Der Spiegel: Girls for Gadhafi: Libyan Leader Hands out Korans to Hundreds of Italian Beauties. ~in which Brother Leader informs, “you believe that Jesus was crucified, but that didn’t happen. God took him to the heavens. They crucified some guy who looked like him.”


Philip Roth is nominated for the “Bad sex in fiction” Award. ~need I say more?

OpenSpace.ru: Сурков признал авторство «Околоноля» ~Viktor Erofeev says Surkov confessed to authoring that gangsta-fiction book.


Tool: translate.google.com. You knew it could translate for you, but did you know it could do a translated search for you?

Blog: Izo.com. Fully of art, kitsch, gossip and NSFW brilliance.

Books: Platforme, by Houellebecq, and We, by Zamyatin. Nice uplifting holiday fare…

And on that note, have a happy Thanksgiving. In honor of which I present a Turkey Day Classic:

Eat up!

September 21, 2009

I am sick… I am spiteful. And I have links.

Ok, it’s official, kids. I’m sick. The doctor I spoke with when making an appointment would not rule out swine flu and told me I had to wear a face mask in the waiting room. What the hell? I thought those things were largely useless. “It’s a precaution.” In fact, when I told him my symptoms, which are pretty lame, generic seasonal virus symptoms, there was a silence followed by, “Oooh… Ok. That is … that’s not good.” Just 24 hours ago I was still convinced I wasn’t really sick & now I’m convinced I’m dying. Possibly of something called, “Swine Flu.” How humiliating. Like being physically and mentally compromised isn’t humiliating enough.

My agenda for the near future is to see the doctor (I am one of those crazy Americans who has incredibly fantastic healthcare and pays a mere pittance for it, yet thinks we need a single payer system), go to the pharmacy for drugs and snacks (I don’t really keep snacks at home. I hate the word “snack.” Sounds offensive… “Snack.” But I am thinking of some juice and donuts, those little ones that have absolutely no nutritional value) and, if still ambulatory, swing by and rent some movies. Then I will go home and resign myself to illness, boredom and Dancing with the Stars. Which will never be the same without Gilles. Beautiful Gilles… Yes, as if choking on my own snot and having an illness with a name which in any other circumstance would be considered an epithet, as if that were not humiliating enough, I will now be scheduling my life according to the TV Guide. They shoot horses don’t they? Too bad I don’t have horse flu.

I’m not up for writing anything, but here are the thinks to things I’ve been reading. Check ’em out. (more…)

August 18, 2009

dreaming, tripping and reading through the Caucasus.

Contents: Gory Gori, Грозный Grozny and the Ecstasy of War.

I haven’t slept well for the past few nights. Thunderstorms, fighter jets breaking the sound barrier, a fickle cat and the fate of the public option have kept me awake. I finally managed to fall into a proper sleep (I think leaving Chopin on repeat all night helped) and had a bizarre dream. I was on an Amtrak with my little brother, Dmitry Medvedev, Anne Nivat and some strangers. The scene had an ominous feel, like when those tv people who were Lost got on that plane to return to that Island. But instead of a mysterious island where nothing makes sense, we were going to S. Ossetia. I didn’t have my papers in order, but Medvedev laughed like Santa Claus and told me it didn’t matter. When we returned, I had no memory about the place, and no stamps in my passport. But I was told I had been there. Nivat showed me photos of our trip. And yet I remembered nothing. It was like my memory of it had been wiped perfectly clean. I felt like I had accidentally stumbled into a Michel Gondry film. With a soundtrack by Chopin.

I should not watch the news before bed. Or at least not France24. Or at least not this:

I. A Video.

A few reactions:

1. I expect a one-sided story from the American mass media. I don’t think I ever did recover from the US reporting of the war last year. I was mortified. Not by war. We’ve been at war every day for over half a decade. It’s just no longer practical to be outraged by the killing of innocent civilians. (I am, but I’m not a very practical person.) I was mortified by the narrative. And it’s a damn shame, because if the coverage had been a little more nuanced, I’d probably be a lot more mad at Russia, which was the point of that coverage, right? It still frustrates and baffles, but no longer shocks. Except when the French do it. I have higher standards for the French. On the other hand, they had the good excuse that the Russian/S. Ossetian forces wont allow them to cross into S. Ossetia to see what’s up over there. I remember that being an issue during the war too. Reporters being unable to verify that Georgia had bombed Tskhinvali because Russian troops weren’t allowing them down the road.

Nevertheless, isn’t it the job of a professional reporter to attempt to confirm hearsay? Or do we live in a world where what people believe is true is deemed more important than what is actually true? The people of Gori say they have heard that Russia is gearing up for another war. Georgian soldiers with their Russian Kalashnikovs are shown training. The cognitive dissonance is makin’ me crazy. And has anyone yet provided us with a semi-believable reason why Russia would want to launch all out war on Georgia proper? That would benefit them how, exactly? Now, how could getting people to believe it benefit Georgia? Precisely. Thank you for participating in today’s logic excessive. A pony for you all.

2. A free two-bedroom house with a flat screen tv for Georgian refugees of last year’s war. They complain it is mediocre. Just what kind of palaces were what inhabiting in South Ossetia? I know Americans facing foreclosure who would snap up one of those homes with a flat screen tv in a second. Maybe in return for our military industrial generosity, Georgia can give Americans some free houses too.

For those of you who protest, “But they are very very little houses, poemless!” there is a short story by Tolstoy I recommend.

3. The old farmer fellow, Vassily, in the hat, is just brilliant. The war last year destroyed his crop. He lost 2/3 of his harvest. He goes on about Ossetians shooting in the fields, making it difficult for him to work. He weeps like a child. But you don’t see him demanding compensation for his losses. His lament? “If only they Soviet Union had never ended!” There was peace then. And bonuses. “Now we have freedom. We are free, with empty pockets.” Now he is praying to God for help. Well, to God and the President, but if it is peace he is after, I think he might have more luck with God. And I say that as an atheist. A God-fearing Georgian whose farm was ripped up by Russian tanks longs for the good old days of the USSR. Put that in your ideological pipe and smoke it. (more…)

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