The latest addition to my website is Boris Poplavsky‘s Аполлон Безобразов (Apollon Bezobrazov).
The book was written in the 1930s but only a few chapters were published in an émigré magazine, till 1992, when it was serialised in a Russian magazine and finally published in book form in 1993. It was intended to be part of a multi-volume work but only one other in the series was published (not translated), also in 1993.The narrator is Vasya,a young Russian exile living (badly) in Paris. He meets and becomes close to the decidedly strange Apollon Bezobrazov. Apollon Bezobrazov can spend his time doing absolutely nothing or he can be a whirlwind of activity. He seems indifferent to his poverty and enjoys his bohemian existence. They are joined by Tereza, daughter of a religious fanatic, who has left a monastery where it seemed she was having an affair with the abbot. The three, joined by a Siberian son of an Old Believer live first in a mansion on the outskirts of Paris and then in a castle in Switzerland. Tereza believes Apollon may well be the devil and there is some evidence for that, though he may just be the typical Russian holy fool/devilish character. It is certainly an unusual book and a fascinating one as Apollon is very unpredictable.
The latest addition to my website is Bernard Chambaz‘s Vladimir Vladimirovitch. This is a novel about Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin, both of them. The narrator, called Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin, is a former university professor, now a tram driver, a few months older than the Russian president, and similar in appearance. He has a dull life but one of his hobbies is maintaining notebooks about his namesake (whom he admires). We learn a lot about Putin the president but because our hero has such a dull life, vainly pursuing a neighbourhood woman, bemoaning the defeat of the Russian ice hockey team and dabbling in painting, the book does not really hit it off.
The latest addition to my website is Konstantin Paustovsky‘s Кара-Бугаз (The Black Gulf). Paustovsky is best-known in English and in Russian for his six-volume autobiography Повестью о жизни (Story of a Life) but he did write several novels, two of which have been translated into English. This one is sadly long since out of print but is well worth reading. The hero, for want of a better word, is the eponymous gulf, called Kara-Bugaz in this book (which is a transliteration of the Russian title) and Garabogazköl by Wikipedia. It is a lagoon off the Caspian Sea, in a very inhospitable part of the world. The novel describes the various people (Russian) who explored and exploited the area. All, of course, are somewhat eccentric and all have their own views on what is appropriate for the area. Some of the visitors were unwilling, such as the Communists deposited there without food and water by the White Russians during the Civil War, and left to die. Most do but not all. While these novelised stories of real people are fascinating, we also follow the lagoon itself, which is like a malicious spirit, threatening, dangerous and unpredictable. This novel was recommended in an excellent article by translator Will Firth.
The latest addition to my website is Sergio Chejfec‘s Los incompletos (The Incompletes). This is a decidedly strange novel. The unnamed narrator tells of his friend Felix, who has decided to leave Argentina and travel the world. Much of the book takes place in Moscow, where Felix stays in a hotel well away from the centre, with the building seemingly having a life of its own. The book is about his relationship with Masha, daughter of the owner and receptionist, though they essentially have no relationship, except watching one another. Felix does not leave the hotel till later in the book, when he discovers a huge, mysterious crater. Meanwhile the narrator (Chefjec himself?) muses on the whys and wherefores of Felix, Masha and their non-relationship, which may (or may not) help each of them make the other more complete.
The latest addition to my website is Irina Odoevtseva:‘s Изольда (Isolde). This book was first published in 1929 and was condemned by Odoevtseva’s fellow Russian émigré writers, including Nabokov, as it dealt with teenage sex and nihilism and was therefore clearly immoral. It tells the story of a Russian émigré family in Biarritz in the 1920s. They are irresponsible mother Natasha, more concerned with her love life than her children (her husband was killed in the Revolution) and her two teenage children, Liza and Nikolai. Liza meets a young Englishman, Cromwell, who christens her Isolde before he knows her name and falls in love with her. When they are joined by Liza’s nominal boyfriend, Andrei, and Natasha disappears in pursuit of her boyfriend, things get very much out of hand. It was published the same year as Jean Cocteau‘s Les Enfants terribles (Children of the Game (UK); The Holy Terrors (US); Les enfants terribles), to which it bears some resemblance.
The latest addition to my website is Yuz Aleshkovsky‘s Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich) and Маскировка (Camouflage), published in the same volume in both Russian and English. Both are distinguished by vicious anti-Soviet satire and the extensive use of obscenities. Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich) is about the eponymous hero, a former prisoner, who finds work first as a laboratory assistant and then as the laboratory guinea pig, which requires him to masturbate every day, with his semen to be used to create a new race of humans to be sent into space. Unfortunately the laboratory gets caught up in the Lysenkoism issue and is closed down.
Маскировка (Camouflage) is about a fictitious town where nuclear arms are secretly made. The activity has to be disguised so camouflagers are used to pretend to be normal Soviet citizens, which is what the US spy satellites will see. Being a normal Soviet citizen means being permanently drunk and Fyodor Milashkin, our hero, does that very well, till he and the other members of his brigade are found by the police one morning having being anally raped. While mocking the Soviet drink culture, Aleshkovsky goes on to eavesdrop on a meeting of the Politburo Brezhnev, Kosygin and Co – and mercilessly mocks them. Both books are very funny, very obscene and very anti-Soviet,
The latest addition to my website is Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Соловьёв и Ларионов (Solovyov and Larionov). This is Vodolazkin’s first novel (though not the first to appear in English) and a superb one it is. General Larionov was a general in the Russian Civil war but on the White Russian side. He commanded a force in the Crimea and held off a superior army of Soviet soldiers for some time. The most surprising thing for those who study him, is that he survived to a ripe old age, living in Russia, and was not arrested or shot for his actions. Solovyov is a young historian. The fact that his first girlfriend was called Leeza Larionova may have helped him to have an interest in the general. Solovyov is a dogged and serious researcher and he is determined to track down the general’s missing memoirs and find the reason why he escaped being shot, as well as solving other mysteries regarding the general and, finally, trying to find Leeza, who seems to disappear. He has a series of adventures, attends a conference on the general, which enables Vodolazkin to mock academics, and pursues his searches and researches assiduously. It is a wonderful story and superbly told by Vodolazkin.
The latest addition to my website is Vasily Grossman‘s За правое дело (Stalingrad). This book was first published in the Soviet Union in Novy Mir magazine in 1952 and then in book form in 1954, soon after Stalin’s death, without which it may not have been published. Both versions were heavily censored. Only now, with the translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, using Grossman’s original manuscript, has the book finally been published as Grossman intended it. The plot follows the situation in Stalingrad leading up to the Battle of Stalingrad and the beginning of that battle and immediately precedes the events taking place in Grossman’s famous Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate). It is superbly told, as we see the action from all sides, both the ordinary Soviet citizen and those directly involved in the fighting whether as ordinary soldiers or senior officers, as well from the German side, including a couple of appearances by Hitler. By the time the book ends, the Germans have entered Stalingrad and are confident of taking it, with the Soviets offering fierce resistance but being pushed ever further back. It is brilliantly told, full of action and gives us a view of the Battle from all perspectives. It is destined to join Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) as a major Russian classic.
The latest addition to my website is Sergei Lebedev‘s Гусь Фриц (The Goose Fritz). We follow Kirill, a Russian living in the contemporary period, who, under the influence of his grandmother, becomes interested in his ancestors, who were of German origin. He tracks down their stories, going back to the late eighteenth century, how they coped, seen as Germans, with German names, and how they were, despite their best efforts, never quite fully Russian. Lebedev give us a highly colourful account of how they were involved in many of the key events of Russian history, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Stalinist purges and how they just about survived (though many did not, dying premature deaths, often violently). Cannibalism, the various wars, rebellions and revolutions in Russia, epidemics, insanity, and love and (lots of) death are seen though the eyes of those who want to be insiders but never manage it. It is a brilliant book and confirms Lebedev as one of the foremost contemporary Russian novelists.
The latest addition to my website is Guzel Yakhina‘s Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha). Zuleikha is a Tatar woman, married to an abusive husband, in the late 1920s. Her husband is determined that the Soviets will not have any of his food and he hides. When he is caught and objects, he is shot on the spot. Zuleikha and many other villagers are then sent off to Siberia as former kulaks. The journey is hard, not least because there is a huge backlog of kulaks and other undesirables being sent off to Siberia and they are delayed on their train journey. It is made harder when Zuleikha realises she is pregnant – her husband raped her the night before his death. She has already lost four daughters, all of whom died young, and she is determined to protect her first son. We follow the story of the prisoners, the commandant and, in particular, Zuleikha, from around 1930 to the end of World War II. As the Russian title (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes) tells us, a good part (but certainly not the only part) is about how Zuleikha develops from being a submissive Muslim woman and abused wife to being someone more independent. Yakhina tells an excellent tale of life in a Siberian camp and of a woman who finds herself there.