poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

May 28, 2011

Odds & Ends: Diary of a High-Functioning Madman Edition

I fired, well, broke up with, well, kindly cancelled all future appointments with my therapist because she wanted to keep returning to the past, while I wanted to concentrate on the here and now, on my own maladaptive behavior, which I can change, not that of my parents, which I can’t. I don’t need to pay a shrink to know the mother and the father are to blame. The Oompa Loompas taught me that. I just need someone to say, “You’re lovely and bright and insightful and I just adore you but you need to practice doing x, y and z. Let me show you how.” I don’t know what’s so hard about that. What’s so hard about that? Why are professionals morosely obsessed with my failed, deceased mother? Heal thy fucking self indeed, sickos.

So shock horror that when I finally get around to writing a new Odds & Ends I immediately start thinking about past topics. OMG psychotherapy has wrecked my brain forever! Well, at least I’m digging up shit I actually like from my past, not my damned childhood. And I do it only in the interest of keeping readers, since these recurring themes are, uh, what my blog is about. People do not come here for optimism or football. Sure, some of the material I cover is disturbing, but frankly it’s therapeutic in its own way to talk about alienized children in Stalinist UFOs or literary criticism. No one ever talks about those things. Maybe they should. Because apparently talking about things solves all our problems. However, I am writing, not talking, and you are not charging $150/hr to read it. Which I’m sure violates a fundamental law of the therapeutic process rendering it DOA. So I’ll wallow, but with lowered expectations.

HIGH-FUNCTIONING

I. If you liked Lost in Translation, then you might enjoy:

Guardian: Translations lost in Booker International prize judging.

Yeah, there’s gotta be a foreigner who writes better than Philip Roth. If only because I’ll be forced to shoot myself in the brains if there isn’t. And I don’t want to make a mess. One day I’ll tell you how Philip Roth traumatized me.

Well, it’s over, and Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International prize for 2011. I was delighted about that. The judges have read with great zest and pleasure – surveying, in Dr. Johnson’s phrase, “from China to Peru” – a vast amount of fiction by contemporary writers. It would have been great to find, and to reward, a writer in translation, preferably one little known to Anglophone readers. But we have an “International” Prize here, which surely means that it is open to anyone – who either writes in English or is available in English translation.

[…]

“…one never knows what other people are fucking talking about… We were supposed to speak the same language but did we fuck…I forgot if I was talking, who I was talking to. I came in and out of perception like I was on dope.”

This piece of applied Wittgenstein suggests that shared perception is the problem. Is there any? Or are all languages private ones? Thus we encounter constantly, every day, the problem of translation. Not just from one language to another, but within the same tongue: from adult to child, man to woman, white to black, English to American, historical to contemporary. “Oh man, you don’t know where I’m coming from,” people used to say. All tongues are foreign tongues?

Not quite – if you ask the way to The Hermitage it helps to understand Russian. It helps even more if you wish to get the most out of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. But the great majority of us – and this is my second point – have grown up reading these authors, and dozens of others in translation, with enormous profit and respect. I prefer reading Dostoyevsky to reading George Eliot, any day. I may miss the nuances of the language, not to mention its funniness, but I still get the extraordinary emotional power, the memorable characters, the play of ideas, the thump of the narrative. I remember Crime and Punishment pretty accurately, though I have not read it for 30 years, but can hardly recall anything of The Mill on the Floss.

Unless you have the original language you cannot say with any precision how well an author writes. Yes, sometimes you can guess. I am told that Juan Goytisolo is very well translated, and Wang Anyi often is not. We encountered a number of writers who we rather suspected were of top quality, but whose work was dreadfully translated, often by local cooperatives, university presses or cack-handed professors (often American). I remember one translation of a Chinese novelist in which the father and mother of a family were called “Mom” and “Dad.” In another, a dreadfully sadistic guard at a prison is described as “really mean.”
What’s one to do?

He’s on to something; “Chto Delat’?” has far more punch, right?

Or was that not rhetorical? Uhm, hire judges who read a language besides English? Just a suggestion…

II. If you liked Daniel Kalder, then you might enjoy:

Transmissionsfromalonestar: Parallel Lives: Russian Literature At Home And Abroad.

The dude who wrote about the Vissarionites and BFE central Asia is now living in Texas? Why does that make perfect sense? Anyway, this was on his blog. And it just segued so elegantly…

For most of the 20th century for instance, there were two parallel Russian literatures. Since the USSR practiced censorship, most people in the West believed that only Solzhenitsyn and other anti-soviet authors could be worth reading, and even relatively obscure dissidents could secure book deals. Authors of the soviet establishment however, who enjoyed print runs in the millions at home, were barely read outside the Eastern bloc, even though the Moscow-based Progress publishing house tirelessly churned out translations for the Western market.

Some authors managed to straddle this East/West divide: Mikhail Sholokhov for instance. But he achieved fame when there were still large numbers of intellectuals favorably inclined to the USSR in the West. After Stalin’s depredations became undeniable, it wasn’t so easy for a soviet author to secure a wide readership in America or Europe. Indeed one of the most famous of all soviet novels, Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs, is practically unknown in the West. It doesn’t help that The Twelve Chairs is a comedy either: Westerners like their Russian authors bearded and serious.

Since 1991, the situation has changed again. Dissident writers once banned in Russia are now widely read at home and forgotten in the West. Vasily Aksyonov, for years a professor at Georgetown University, couldn’t even find an American publisher for his last few novels. Eduard Limonov, the notorious leader of the National Bolshevik party now deemed illegal in Russia, hasn’t been published in English since 1990.

However it’s not just contemporary writers who suffer from this distorting effect. Even the classics are subject to it.

All educated readers in Britain and America know the names of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even if they haven’t read them. Chekhov is almost regarded as an English writer, at least in terms of the influence he has had on the short story.

Step back a little farther in time, however, and things become murkier. It’s easy to get your hands on Gogol’s Dead Souls and Petersburg Tales but as for Taras Bulba, Dikanka or even some of his plays, well, not so much. And of course, most obscure of all is Alexander Pushkin. People might know the name, but hardly anyone has read him.

By pure coincidence Scowspi and Doom are on my facebook page at this very moment lamenting the former’s failure to read Taras Bulba. I myself have not, and, like Kalder’s unwashed masses, I am also not a huge Pushkin fan. Ok the one about the demons and the storm in the carriage, that was great stuff. But enough to base a national identity on? When you have Dostoevsky? Really? REALLY?

III. If you liked Russian Film 101, then you might enjoy:

MosFilm archives! On YouTube! Bezplatno!

IV. If you liked Top Thinkers, then you might enjoy:

Sincerity and Authenticity by Lionel Trilling.

It’s a book. I found it in the free books room at the library (yes). I really know nothing about Lionel Trilling, but from the moment I began to read it I felt guilt and shame for the pure exhilaration of it. I don’t often use the term, “intellectually masturbatory,” but I can think of no other purpose for this book to exist. I love it!

One reviewer called it “Self-help for the literary/philosophical set.” Do you know I am viscerally sickened by self-help books? I’m one of the few Chicagoans who believes the end of the Oprah Winfrey show is actually a step forward for civilization. I expect no help from this book, just mad validation of my disturbing lifestyle. Which, to think of it, is the same thing Oprah provided her audience, so I guess the reviewer isn’t so far off.

It’s full of great quotes. Actually, if there is some textual connective tissue for these quotes, I’m missing it. But they’re great quotes!

“Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” ~Hawthorne.

“Of all ridiculous characters the one which the world pardons least is the one who is ridiculous because he is virtuous.”~Rousseau

“But then of course it came to be understood that the bias of psychoanalysis, so far from being Dionysian, is wholly in the service of the Apollonian principle, seeking to strengthen the “honest soul” in the selfhood which is characterized by purposiveness and a clear-eyed recognition of limits. The adverse judgment increasingly passed upon psychoanalysis […] not only expresses an antagonism to its normative assumptions and to the social conformity which is believed to inhere in its doctrine, but is also an affirmation of the unconditioned nature of the self, of its claim to an autonomy so complete that all systematic predications about it are either offensively reductive, or gratuitously prescriptive, or irrelevant.” ~Trilling.

PREACH IT, BROTHER!

MADNESS

I. If you liked PTSD, then you might enjoy:

ABC: Big Changes for the Psychiatrist’s ‘Bible’.

It’s bad enough they’re practicing psychiatry, but they have a Bible too? Sin, pathology, tomayto, tomahto. Anyway, it’s nice to see them realize something I have been shouting in their faces for decades. Probably the shouting didn’t help. BTW, did you know the Catholics have decided suicide is not a sin? And the APA has decided it’s not limited to the clinically depressed.

APA leaders also emphasized the two new suicide risk assessment scales planned for DSM-V, one for adolescents and one for adults.

Dr. David Shaffer, of Columbia University, told reporters on the press call that suicide nearly always occurs in the context of some psychiatric disorder, but not always depression.

The new risk assessment tools focus on risk factors such as impulsive behavior, heavy drinking, and chronic severe pain and illness.

In DSM-IV, suicidal ideation is treated as a symptom of major depression and certain other disorders.

Every diagnosis until this year has gone like this: suicide attempt -> professional Dx of “Depression” -> someone asking me why I wanted to kill myself. In that order. Always. Then they go on to be confused as to why I have low self esteem. Because if you slit your wrists, you are depressed, and if you are depressed, you have low self-esteem, and this is the bizarre logic practiced by people who have devoted their lives to studying the human MIND. “Actually I don’t have a sense of low self-worth. I’m just sick of suffering. I just don’t want to live in a cruel world.” “It’s common for victims of abuse to have low self-esteem.” “If I had low self-esteem, would I be here trying to correct your assumptions about me?” “You are so smart. Why would you want to kill yourself? You must be sick.”

II. If you liked Stalin’s space monkeys, then you might enjoy:

Gawker: Roswell ‘UFO’ Was Nothing More than Stalin’s Nazi Space Ship Full of Monsters

Sin, pathology, tomayto, tomahto, monsters, children… The thing is, I totally believe it. Except for the Nazi part. For a country so gung ho on giving itself credit for saving the planet during WWII, we seem to have absolutely no concept of how the Soviet Union, er, did not like the Nazis. Which is not to say someone like Stalin would not be capable of ordering human experimentation to turn children into aliens with the aim of scaring the pants off Americans. Just that the Nazi bit seems a creative flourish to drive home the fact that turning children into aliens is, like, really evil. Which frankly implies that Stalin was evil sure but not Nazi evil. Just sayin.

As one of America’s foremost news sources for crazy internet people, we feel it is important to keep you informed on the very latest news regarding the real story behind mysterious government alien autopsy site “Area 51,” the Nevada military base where they keep that UFO that crashed in Roswell in 1947. And now, the most recent theory on the crash, from respected (really!) journalist Annie Jacobsen’s new book:

Joseph Stalin recruited Nazi scientist Josef Mengele to conduct human experiments to produce “grotesque, child-size aviators” and put them on a Russian spacecraft that was sent flying over the U.S. to “spark public hysteria,” and then the U.S. government covered it all up.

This has been a completely accurate transcription of The Latest Theory on Area 51. If you have more up-to-date theories, put them in the comments at once.

This is a such a great story that, like Santa, even if it is not true, we should still accept it out of honor for the capacity of human imagination. This story was on Nightline. Which I am addicted to because it’s lurid shock news without the politics. And they show it right before bed. Anyway. Their main concern was that the book also reports that Americans were doing human experimentation at Area 51. Why is this so difficult to accept? We have the money, the science, the ambition and the arrogance, and more of it than the even the Soviet Union. We created the bomb. Does anyone look at Washington and find the great voice of conscience that would prevent us from creating an abomination to retain our superpower status and, well, just because we can? Right? What I love most about this story is that it illustrates perfectly what I have been saying on this blog for ages: Americans and Russians are far more similar than anyone is still willing to admit.

Vova agrees.

III. If you liked, well, anything I’ve written about Putin, then you might enjoy:

Outdoor Life: One-on-One With Vladimir Putin.

Because I will never have enough excuses to post this:

OL: Do you think the Russian people are more open-minded about sports such as hunting and fishing, or have Americans just become hypersensitive?

VP: I think this question should rather be addressed to a professional psychoanalyst. I am not ready to assess transformations in Americans’ sensitivity and, more than that, I do not think it would be right to ascribe certain characteristics to representatives of one or another ethnic group.

The area where a person lives, the prevailing social and economic conditions and cultural traditions surely leave an imprint on his or her personality but, still, I have met quite a few Americans who could easily be taken for Russians if they did not speak English. In general, we have a rather similar mentality. In any case, we are not snobs. My “popularity,” as you call it, with American outdoors enthusiasts is just another proof of that similarity of our views and perceptions.

You say that you cannot imagine the U.S. President even allowing himself to be photographed while hunting, or with his shirt off. But I can because I remember pictures of Theodore Roosevelt taken not just with a hunting rifle or a fishing rod in his hands, but with a lion he killed. And indeed, as recently as last summer, President Barack Obama was bathing in the Pacific Ocean in front of TV and photo cameras, and he was not wearing a tie, to put it mildly. Does this look like politically incorrect behavior? Not to me, and my ethnic origin has nothing to do with that.

It is certainly very important, particularly for the Head of State, to carry oneself in such a way as not to offend or humiliate people’s feelings, in word or deed; however, the society is so rich in various—sometimes mutually exclusive—customs, hobbies and forms of self-expression that it is merely impossible to measure one’s actions against each of them every now and then.

We cannot reduce everything to absurdity, but we should not show off in this context, displaying ostentatious commitment to the so-called “standards of decency.” We need to identify and maintain essential, basic things.

I would like to say a few words on political correctness on the whole, and on tolerance, representing the crucial values of modern civilization; on the topics that have no direct bearing either to hunting or fishing, but belong to basic moral and ethical foundations of our existence.

I have observed more than once that in some countries, including the United States, people who call themselves Christians feel shy, resentful or afraid of showing their commitment to Christian traditions and rituals in public. In fact, they do nothing that could offend other confessions—provided, of course, that they treat those confessions with genuine respect and consider them to be of equal value with the Christian faith; all the more so since ethical values that lie at the basis of all religions of the world are essentially the same.

Here the feeling of superiority is unacceptable, even destructive, and we all see it very well. I rank strict observance of political correctness principles in religious matters among those very essential foundations of human behavior.

And you should listen to what Putin says about religion because when he’s not playing nature boy or running countries or singing for charity, he’s an angel. Oh don’t take my word for it!

Via Novaya Gazeta:

billboards around Piter:

AGT doesn’t see the resemblance, but as someone who has spent countless hours staring at pictures of the Russian PM, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge. Mark your calendars, kids! For the first and perhaps only time, I am squarely with Novaya Gazeta on this one.

Speaking of madness, I mean religion:

Because so many of you have inquired, I cannot end this edition without addressing the question on all of your minds.

No. I did not start the female cult who worship Putin as saint and savior. But don”t let that stop you from joining.

Thanks for reading, and have a lovely weekend!

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January 7, 2011

… To this great stage of fools.

That was a difficult year… I was prepared to acknowledge that it left me with little to crow about, yes, but it wasn’t until I broke into tears as “Happy New Year!” left my lips at the stroke of midnight that I felt the full weight of it. Like I’d been holding my breath since June. Horrible. A bit terrifying actually… This is my MO. I didn’t cry at my mother’s funeral. People kept informing me, “It’s not normal, T–” “You should be sad, T–” Eventually I did cry, when everyone else had gotten on with their lives and stopped wondering what to do with me. My emotional timing is always off. I managed to hold myself together as I suffered some freak neurological nightmare all year. Now I am crying all the time for no discernible reason. I cried at my step-parents’ house. Well, the holidays are stressful and emotional when you are orphaned-like. But I cried, inconsolably sobbed, when my step-mother kept asking where her box of chocolates was. Like I knew. Like the whole house were not filled to the brim with sweets. Like if she kept asking eventually I would confess to lifting them. I sat on the couch and wailed hysterically. Obviously not about the chocolates. Just like I did not cry about the arrival of the new year. I have no idea why I am suddenly such a drama queen lately. Certainly not pregnant, and don’t seem depressed or blue otherwise… I expect a decade from now another random blood test will reveal an imbalance of some magical chemical recently discovered to control one’s emotional sensitivity. … Eventually we’ll all be robots.

Well, like I said, I am not actually depressed. Just profoundly relieved 2010 is over. And one week into 2011 I’ve little Russia watching to boast of. I got nothin’, I tell ya. If you want serious political analyses, go visit AGT or that… Ioffe, I think, is her name. Yes. They have the dish on the liberal infighting and Putin’s corruption and our man in Chita and all that jazz. Nothing new under the Russian sun, as far as I can see. But then, just when you think that, there will be a coup or collapse or Vova will issue a “Putin sings Motown” LP or something else no one could have predicted. But that’s not happened since I last posted, so in the meantime I busy myself with the following:

Cinema

Black Swan. It’s not technically Russian, I suppose. On the other hand, it is directed by a guy named Aronofsky, takes place at the ballet, in a very dark and ill-defined reality, is set to Tchaikovsky’s music, and has a lesbian sex scene between two rather emaciated but beautiful women. And it isn’t French. So…

Inverse to my peers in the audience, I came for the ballet and stayed for the lesbian sex scene. But the draw, it turned out was neither. The psychodrama and Pyotr Ilyich’s score are responsible the film’s genuine intensity. Each on its own would be enough to make your heart pound, but the combination of two work like that of an illicit drug and alcohol. You arrive a bit jaded and cynical but braced for some adventure, get cinematic rush, leave the theater with your head spinning, and feel the full ugly weight of it the next day. It’s kind of like a terrifying nightmare you awake from the next day and, in the harsh light or reason and reflection you think, “Fuck. That didn’t even make SENSE.” Or maybe like a one night stand: insane in the moment, but now you’re in no mood to repeat it, wonder if you haven’t been made a fool of, suddenly remember that one annoying matter you blocked out of your mind in the heat of the moment but which now seems a bit cheezy and revolting (<-Winona Ryder zombie. Really?) But it just might haunt you for the rest of your life. Or not.

Well, did you want a proper review? Something about Kubrick and maybe some interpretation (metaphor for the creative process? stress-induced nightmare? complete mental breakdown? REALITY?) Oh, the Internet is full of that. Go google it. I liked it. I also like every aspect of this movie in its own respect (ballet, the score of Swan Lake, horror stories, psychotic break stories, artistic process stories, lesbian sex scenes, Flashdance-era fashions…) If you don't like any of these things, I can't imagine why on earth you would possibly want to see this film.

Er… I am a bit hesitant to post this here; I fear either no one will believe me, or my college peers will come crawling from the woodwork. But I simply must share! I beat Darren Aronofsky to the punch! In a performance art class taken in my undergraduate years, I -why? who even knows? it was performance art!- did one performance set to the score of Swan Lake which involved, among other things, a sharp blade and a stupid amount of my own blood. I went to a university that churns out actors and directors and other industry professionals. Who in that class is now hanging with Darren Aronofsky? Until I find out, I will be gracious and just mutter something about great minds…

Literature

Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk. Someone (Spires?) was advising me to read Akunin. My New Year’s resolution is to read Borges, but this was at the library, and seemed more … doable. I am slowly realizing the reason I have never read Borges is not laziness, but a sincere desire not to. Akunin. It’s ok. Pretty routine mystery stuff. I love mysteries, but that’s the problem. After so many of them it becomes a struggle to not see the formula. In fact the first few pages were intolerable, very talky and haughty (I want to blame Andrew Bromfield,) but it suddenly became interesting just a I was ready to chuck it. And it has remained interesting. I would not conflate “interesting” with “genius,” but it is certainly not … low brow. Pretentious? A little, which has the effect of making something respectable seem a bit cheap. But it is nevertheless enjoyable in an “I’ve been reading Latin all day and I don’t even know Latin, so brainpower is now on standby” way and great for the train. To quote an Amazon.com review, “I enjoyed the Dostoevsky references.”

On the topic of Russian literature, let us pause to appreciate this stunning article from the Guardian:

Why western authors are in love with Mother Russia.

I am “western,” in love with Mother Russia and … uhm, I have a blog. Maybe he’d gotten to the root of my madness? I was quite intrigued. Until I was reminded that the reason this western girl has a blog about Mother Russia is to combat the utter crap being written about her elsewhere.

Choice:

Russia has recently inspired an abundance of novels. I mean, specifically, novels set there by English-speaking authors, from thrillers such as Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko mysteries, to Helen Dunmore’s Leningrad books. (By contrast, surprisingly few home-grown, contemporary Russian writers have found wide foreign readerships. The Putin era has not in general been conducive to great literature.)

Dear Mr. Miller, YOU SUCK. I don’t write this stuff for my health, you know. (Well, actually… but that’s neither here nor there.) Yes, if London bookshops are not crammed with Russian novels, it simply MUST be Putin’s fault. But, let’s not get started about the crimes Mr. Putin would be accused of if London bookshops were crammed with Russian novels.

Martin Cruz Smith is “great literature?” I am going to go shoot myself. You can continue reading…

There are multiple ways to think about Russia’s extremes. The obvious one is physical. Much of the vast country is lethally cold for half the year or more. Virtually any outdoor activity – starting a car; walking down the obstacle-course, snowbound streets – can be its own microdrama. This harsh environment helps to explain why Dostoevsky and others always seem to be stretching up their hands to heaven. The fundamental questions – Why are we here? Is anyone in charge? – somehow seem sharper at -20C, or on a three-day train ride.

Well, considering London just absolutely ceased to function period after a few inches of snow, I can see how the author would attribute Russia’s penchant for drama to … cold weather. Still, it doesn’t explain the dearth of Canadian lit on London bookshelves. Personally, I blame Stephen Harper. Not conducive…

Classic:

Russia is not, or not only, a sort of moral zoo, which writer and reader can visit with a safe sense of superiority. It is also a place to test their moral pride and presumptions.

Russia has for centuries been a distorting, fairground mirror for the west. It is both like and unlike the tamer nations. Throughout the cold war, it was alien, unknowable, the other, enemy world, and an easy setting for thrillers. Something of that menace persists, partly in the guise of the Russian mob, one of the elements in John le Carré’s latest book Our Kind of Traitor. At the same time Russia is European, notionally Christian and industrialised. It has a familiar high culture and recognisable architecture. Go to Moscow for a day or two, and you might consider it a normal northern European city, with extra neon and worse roads. You have to stay a little longer to uncover the wildness. As the Marquis de Custine put it after visiting in 1839, it is “only too easy to be deceived by the appearances of civilisation”.

Don’t be deceived – they’re animals, not like us! It’s a “zoo.” Brits go there to get their moral superiority on. Someone should tell them they really do that just fine at home and save them the plane trip. And 3 hour train trip. In the cold.

One question posed by some novels set in Russia is whether this place that sometimes looks the same actually is the same: whether everything that happens there could happen here too, could happen to us, if we shed our inhibitions and our own “appearances of civilisation”. … Would we cling to our integrity today, if almost everyone about us was selling theirs?

Uhm, other than to read his own articles, has the author picked up a newspaper lately? Who the fuck is clinging to their integrity?! Please, I want to start a commune with this person. Tell me who we’re talking about. We should breed, and save civilization! Well, I never did find out why we westerners are in love with Mother Russia, but I did learn that Brits are apparently so boring they must travel to inclement and morally depraved places to find interesting people to write about. That’s depressing.

Lastly on the topic of Russian literature, from Muse Daily.

Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”

Plus ca change…

I need to run off and return to real life.

But I was going to add something about there being a world food prices crisis which the UN reports may lead to uprisings. (Do hungry people have the energy to fight?) And on the same day I read about an article in our local paper highlighting a recipe using obscure, gourmet ingredients in some kind of contest among local chefs to make the most unique and over-the-top cuisine no one would ever want to eat evar. One step in the recipe involved covering a lemon in salt and letting it set “for 4-6 months.” Meanwhile, Americans are shopping at the Dollar Store and starving Indians are on the verge of revolt. Karlin just posted something about people living in sewers under Las Vegas.

It is just not right.

No wonder I cry…

But I must run! Ok, thanks for reading. Ciao!

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.

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