Category Archives: Russian Literature

Stranded in New York City: My Literary Adventure

This week I had the opportunity to visit New York City and explore one of its biggest and best bookstores.  The Strand, on 12th Street and Broadway, which has been in business for 86 years,  boasts 18 miles of books on three floors.  Browsing the massive collection of books is a bibliophile’s dream come true.  One of the things that impressed me the most is the abundance of what blogger Times Flow recently called “alt-lit”—which to me means literature in translation from around the world, books from small presses, and reissued classics.  Not only do they have a plethora of such interesting literature, but these types of books are displayed prominently on easy-to-browse tables on the first floor of The Strand.

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I recently acquired a copy of Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho and became intrigued with her writing and translating so I was excited to find two Carson books (well, more like pamphlets) at The Strand.  Her poetry collection entitled Float comes in a clear plastic box and contains a series of chapbooks with poems, reflections, lists, and thoughtful observations.  They are meant to be read separately or as one continuous, connected work; I would like to set aside enough time to read them all at once.

 

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I also found another  chapbook from Anne Carson that she wrote for part of the New Directions poetry pamphlet series.  I read The Albertine Workout on the train ride home and found it interesting, clever, humorous and erudite.   It’s ironic and thrilling that she penned such a small, thoughtful pamphlet on Proust!

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I also came across a rather inexpensive copy of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones.  One aspect of The Strand that is also helpful is their abundance of new books on sale as well as inexpensive used book selection.

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I also couldn’t resist this new, pristine copy of Fagle’s translation of the Aeneid to replace my badly worn out copy.  The introduction by Bernard Knox is a fantastic piece of writing that makes this translation worth owning just for his essay alone.

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It was particularly exciting for me to walk into The Strand and immediately find books from many of my favorite small presses.  I browsed through books from Deep Vellum, New Vessel Press, Archipelago Books, Seagull Books and New Directions.  I found three books to add to my ever-growing collection from the New York Review of Books: The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, The Other by Thomas Tryon and The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout.

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I also found this copy of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom published by Archipelago Books.

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Finally, I had the thrill of a lifetime when, as I was browsing this fabulous selection of books, I opened a copy of Recitation by Bae Suah from Deep Vellum which I recently reviewed.  Inside the front cover was a blurb from my review of her previous book, A Greater Music, that I wrote for World Literature Today.

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I also highly recommend The Strand Kiosk which is located outside of Central Park on E. 60th St. and 5th Ave.  It is only opened seasonally and I had the opportunity to browse the Kiosk during my visit last June and also came home with an assortment of great books.  And a final thing worth mentioning about The Strand is the third floor of the main shop on Broadway which is full of rare and collectable first edition books.  Their selection of rare books is also listed for sale on their website.  I am hoping that someday my copy of Bottom’s Dream from Dalkey Archive will be worthy of sitting among the rare books in their collection.  Although I doubt that I would ever be able to part with my copy!

I always find New York exciting and exhilarating and The Strand is a unique destination in the city that adds to the thrill of visiting.  I could have spent at least a few more hours there, I didn’t even make it to the second floor of books!  I am contemplating a day trip next month just to go back and visit this magical, literary place.  What are your favorite bookshops from around the world?

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Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry, Russian Literature

Review: The Underground By Hamid Ismailov

My Review:
the-undergroundCaveat lector.  Let the reader beware.  This book is deeply sad and does not have a happy ending.  But for many readers a happy ending is not a necessary factor for a book to be considered successful  The narrator of Ismailov’s novel is a child nicknamed Mbobo whose mother is from Siberia and whose father is an unknown African athlete that visited Moscow, and his mother, during the Olympics in 1980.  The boy’s sad story of a tumultuous childhood fraught with domestic violence and racism is told posthumously: “My mother died when I was eight, and I died four years later.”

As a boy, Mbobo oftentimes finds himself being taken from one part of Moscow to another via the city’s subway.  Each of the title chapters in the book is a station from the Moscow underground which is appropriate for the themes of darkness and death that are woven throughout the narrative.  The chapter entitled “Kropotkinskaya Station” begins:

If I ever wanted a tomb for my dead body, I would have picked the Kropotkinskaya Station. That is my vault: elegant and airy, impractical and absurd, standing all by itself, in the middle of the road, like an arch from nowhere to nowhere. If you find yourself on Volkhonk Street and pass under this frilly gape of an arch, you should turn left, you’ll end up in my underground hell, the very station where I, the stoker-imp, am covered in soot. There fountains of flames spurt up toward the hot ceiling from the torch-like pillars, where the light of day is never seen.

Because Mbobo is black he suffers from horrible, daily episodes of racism throughout his young life.  His nickname, Pushkin–the poet’s maternal great- grandfather came to Russia from Ethiopia with Peter the Great— is even a cruel reminder that he is not like everyone else.  When he is at school he is pushed by a bully and he suffers a severe concussion.  While recovering at the hospital, which should have been a safe resting place for him, two other boys tie him up and call him awful, racist names.

The only real solace in his life is the unconditional love shown to him by his mother, whose name is Moscow. He calls her “Mommy Moscow.”  But she has her own issues with alcohol and promiscuity which also affect Mbobo’s life.  Her husband,  whom the child calls Uncle Gleb, is a struggling writer.  On the rare occasions when he does get paid he spends his earnings on vodka and then beats his wife.  Mbobo witnesses regular episodes of domestic violence and oftentimes tries to intervene to stop Uncle Gleb from killing his mother.  When she finally gets tired of his drunken beatings, Mbobo’s mother takes up with a railway police officer named Uncle Nazar.  Even though his second stepfather is kinder to his mother, he is stern and distant with the boy.

When Mbobo’s mother succumbs to her intemperate lifestyle, he is left orphaned.  He bounces between his uncles who attempt to care for him but with the loss of the unconditional love of his mother he is drowned in his feelings of utter and complete loneliness.  These tragedies happen to Mbobo with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union as the backdrop.  One of the final tragedies that the boy experiences is the renaming of his underground stations that had been one of the few constants in his short life.

The book is fused with literary allusions to the Russian greats: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Platonov all peak through Ismailov’s text.  The greatest of greats, Tolstoy himself, makes his appearance at the end of the novel which has a conclusion similar to that of Anna Karenina.  Despite the melancholy ending, Ismailov’s talented writing about identity, race, loneliness and the collapse of a government make it a highly successful literary novel.

Ben Winston, who has founded the site Vibrant Margins which is dedicated to bringing small press books to readers through a subscription service, has agreed to give a copy of The Underground as well as Country Life by Ken Edwards to one of my readers. Both of these books, which are great literary reads,  are included in the first subscription season of Vibrant Margins.   If you would like a copy of these books then just leave me a comment and I will randomly pick one US reader.   So that my friends outside the US will also have a chance to read these books,  I will also pick one International reader to win my own copies of these books.

About the Author:
hamidismailovBorn in an ancient city in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek novelist and poet who was forced to leave his home in Tashkent when his writing brought him to the attention of government officials. Under threat of arrest, he moved to London and joined the BBC World Service, where he is now Head of the Central Asian Service. In addition to journalism, Ismailov is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his books have been published in Uzbek, Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and other languages. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan. He is the author of many novels, including Sobranie UtonchyonnyhLe Vagabond Flamboyant, Two Lost to LifeThe RailwayHostage to Celestial TurksGoogling for SoulThe UndergroundA Poet and Bin-Laden, and The Dead Lake; poetry collections including Sad (Garden) and Pustynya (Desert); and books of visual poetry including Post Faustum and Kniga Otsutstvi. He has translated Russian and Western classics into Uzbek, and Uzbek and Persian classics into Russian and several Western languages.

 

 

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

Review: A Very Russian Christmas

a-very-russian-christmasThis fascinating collection of Russian Christmas stories, many of which have been published here in English for the first time, is a glimpse into the celebration of this holiday from a simpler age which is long past.  Christmas in the twenty-first century has become the season of massive and ugly consumerism, a time when obscene amounts of money are spent on the latest and greatest toys and gadgets.  The Christmas tales in A Very Russian Christmas, penned by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Teffi, Chekov, Korolenko, Zoshchenko, Lukashevich, and Gorky bring us back to the holidays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when children were thrilled to receive fruits and small trinkets that decorated the Christmas trees.   In these stories we encounter festive gatherings of different classes of people, reflections on what it meant to live a good life, and lastly, and most importantly, merry making that involves lots of vodka.  Lots and lots of vodka.  Klaudia Lukashevich describes young, Russian children who are eager with anticipation for the Christmas tree to be decorated and are so excited about celebrating Christmas with their extended family:

And now it appears—a shapely green tree, to which so many legends and recollections are tied…Hello, you sweet, beloved tree!  In the midst of winter you bring us the evergreen smell of the forests and, drenched in little lights, you delight the children’s gaze, just as according to ancient legend you brought joy to the gaze of the Holy Infant.  Our family had a custom for major holidays to make each other presents, surprises, to unexpectedly bring great happiness and joy.  Each quietly prepared his handmade gift; we memorized poems; for the New Year and for Easter we placed the handmade present under our napkins…We were engrossed in this tradition and it brought us much happiness.  The gifts were simple, inexpensive but they caused much delight.

My favorite story in the collection is, not surprisingly, from Chekhov who is the undisputed master of the short story.  In “A Woman’s Kingdom,” he gives us the character of Anna Akimovna who, despite living in a lavish mansion and being surrounded by wealth and luxury, suffers from a deep loneliness.  Anna’s parents and uncle are deceased and at the age of twenty-six she is an heiress and the reluctant owner of a large factory.  Other than an old aunt who lives in the lower part of her home, Anna has no other relatives and has not married or had any children.

When Christmas comes around Anna is surrounded by people who pay their respects to her as a member of the upper class and as a prominent owner of a successful factory.  Many people beg her for money which makes her feel uncomfortable and perplexed as to how best to help the lower classes.  Chekov vividly sets the perfect festive scene in his story as Anna dons her most beautiful dress, greets dozens of guests, and has a lavish dinner with rich food, wine and vodka.  Even though Anna is surrounded by people and engages in a variety of holiday activities that would be the envy of many, she is always the loneliest person in the room.  Throughout the course of Christmas Day as Anna is taking part in the festivities, she begins to think about one of the factory workers she has recently met and experiences feelings of hope about the prospect of getting married.

A lawyer who is an old family friend visits for Christmas dinner and Anna shares her feelings of loneliness with him.  He offers this humorous and hopeful advice to Anna:

The fin de siècle woman—I mean when she is young, and of course wealthy—must be independent, clever, elegant, intellectual, bold and a little depraved.  Depraved within limits, a little.  For excess, you know, is wearisome.  You ought not to vegetate, my dear; You ought not to live like everyone else, but to get the full savor of life, and a slight flavor of depravity is the sauce of life.  Revel among flowers of intoxicating fragrance, breathe the perfume of musk, eat hashish, and best of all, love, love, love…To begin with, in your place I would set up seven lovers—one for each day of the week…

Anna’s retort is that she is “lonely, lonely as the moon in the sky, and a waning moon too…”  The only thing in the world that will make her happy, Anna believes, is a deep and abiding love that comes with a marriage.  Chekov makes the point that all of our feelings and emotions—hope, love, kindness, compassion, loneliness— are heightened and even exasperated during the holidays.  Anna feels her loneliness more keenly as she greets her guests, but she also feels more hopeful that she will find true love.  As Christmas Day ends, however, and the clock strikes midnight, Anna loses hope for marrying a factory worker and becomes resigned to her loneliness.

I especially enjoyed the Christmas settings in these stories which described celebrations among family and friends, interesting holiday traditions, cold and snowy weather, and a spirit of hope.  New Vessel Press, one of my favorite small presses, has published their first hard cover book filled with stories from Russian masters who show us what it means to celebrate a very Russian Christmas.

I would like to wish all of my readers, followers, fellow bloggers, and bibliophiles a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, Novella, Russian Literature

My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

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Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Persephone Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Review: Written in the Dark—Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad

My Review:
written-in-the-darkThe official, state sponsored view of the Siege of Leningrad was one of heroism and valor and any piece of writing whether it be fiction, non-fiction or poetry that did not align with the Soviet vision of the Siege was suppressed.  The dark and shocking works of the five poets in this collection were written in secret and not uncovered or published until many years after the war and after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The Nazi siege of this Russian city lasted from September 1941 until January of 1944 with an estimated death toll reaching nearly 1,000,000 lives.  The Soviet Union propogated a version of this event that portrayed stoic Russians valiantly enduring the long, German offensive;  the brutality and horror that occurred in the city were buried with those who died during the Siege.  In the introduction to the collection, Polina Barskova writes about the official, state approved, Soviet poetry that was allowed to be published about the Siege:

The “exemplary” Siege self presented to the world in this kind of literature was that of the stoic Soviet soldier.  Even women, children and the elderly were depicted as warriors and likened to the city’s monuments —carved of marble and decorated with gold.  It is these ubiquitous monuments that told, as I recall from my Leningrad childhood, the retouched story of the Siege—filled with hypocritical pathos and barren of the horrific truth.  The truth, however, does emerge, sooner or later.

During the era of perestroika, poetry that was written during the Siege and suppressed by the Soviet regime began to emerge and to give the world a more accurate glimpse into the suffering and death that was thrust upon this city during World War II.  The poets in this collection include Gennady Gor (1907-1981), the artist and film set director Pavel Zaltsman (1912-1985), the philologist Dmitry Maximov (1904-1987), the avant-garde painter Vladimir Sterligov (1904-1973), and the poet-philologist Sergey Rudakov (1909-1944).

The most brutally shocking poems in the book are written by Gennady Gor who became a well-known scholar, science fiction writer and collector of the art of Northern ethnicities when the war was over.  There is an emphasis throughout his poems on cannibalism which is believed to have been widely practiced during the height of the Siege. Even carrion birds are deprived of any meals because there simply is nothing left:

I ate Rebecca the girl full of laughter
A raven looked down at my hideous dinner.
A raven looked down at me like at boredom.
At hwo slowly this human was eating that human.
A raven looked down but it was for nothing.
I didn’t throw it that arm of Rebecca.

Lenigraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Lenigraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Gor’s poems are obsessed with rotting and cold body parts, even when they are not being eaten.  His emphasis on descriptions of  body parts evokes the images of citizens lying in the streets, completely forgotten. His description of the pervading darkness reminds us of the black nights endured by the citizens because they were constantly under attack by the Germans. Even the moon is not welcome under these horrendous circumstances. Gor reveals the mental and emotional toll that this Siege took on its survivors, which stark details were forbidden to be written about in the official, Soviet poetry:

With a shock wave in my ears,
A cold moon in my soul,
I am a shot to insanity. I am both
Check and mate to myself. I am mute. Now I
Am nothing and running toward nothing.
Now I am no one’s and rushing to no one.
A shock wave in my mouth,
A cold moon in my dark,
A leg in my corner, an arm in my ditch,
The eyes that fell out of my sockets,
A finger forgotten in one of the clinics,
An unneeded moon in my dark.

After reading Vladimir Stergilov’s poems I was stunned that this man could not only survive the Siege, but also serve at the Leningrad Front, and then after the war return to this city where he became a successful artist in the underground, unofficial, avant-garde world of art.  One wonders how could a man who wrote this poem go on after these experiences:

Raised a spoon to your lips—Death
Stretched out your hand to hello—Death
Saw a little goldfinch—Death
On the branch of a little leaf—Death
On a walk with your friends—Death
Looked at the cabbage on the plate—Death
Seeing your friends off, two of them—Death
Happened to glance to the side—Death.

Stergilov’s use of epistrophe with the word “Death” underscores the sheer terror that hovers over the most mundane, daily activities like eating or greeting a friend or walking in the park.

One final poet in the collection that stands out is Sergey Rudakov who elevates the themes of his poetry to encompass the larger event that is the destruction of Leningrad,  a once proud and prosperous stronghold of the Russian state.  He is the only one of these five poets who mentions his native city repeatedly in his Siege poems. In this first excerpt there is a feeling of nostalgia for his beloved city which is no longer recognizable to him:

The poor heart is both happy and unhappy
To recognize in searchlight crosses, to the west,
The native sky of Leningrad.

In the next poem in which he mentions the city there is an emphasis on the wasteland that  his city has become with its empty apartments, streets and shops:

In the wasteland of Leningrad
Clocks still tell time somewhere.
But do not trust their wheels’ gait
Nor the arc of their springs.
Blind Charon keeps idle:
There are no normal burials.

RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Leningraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

And in one final poem he uses the city’s former name, perhaps in an attempt to remember what a great city it once was before the Germans invaded. There is also an emphasis in this poem on the scores of unburied dead that were strewn on the city streets:
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…In those far off years
Which future grandchildren
Will never come to know
In pale accounts of science,
Those days immemorial
Were lost in dreadful frosts.
In makeshift huts, the futile fires
Warmed soups of glue
And glucose for the living.
The dead outnumbered coffins.
The rout of Petersburg abandoned
Without a burial their own.

As difficult as these poems are to read, they are a reminder of the remarkable resiliency of the human spirit.  Rudakov aptly writes that future grandchildren will not come to know the true brutality of the Siege because as time slips by, so do our memories fade.  Our minds, our hearts, our souls have the greatest capacity to overcome the most unspeakable tragedies; this collection of poems puts into perspective the seemingly trivial problems that we might have on a day to day basis—trivial, at least, in comparison to surviving the Siege of Leningrad.

For more information on each of the authors of the collection as well as the editor visit Ugly Duckling Presse.

 

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Filed under Poetry, Russian Literature