As 2015 draws to a close, Mikhail Shishkin's Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories (Deep Vellum), has been getting some lovely attention.
Marian Schwartz and others have translated these works, which are "the perfect introduction to Russia's greatest ... contemporary author." The 1993 short story "Calligraphy Lesson" was Shishkin's first published work. Like the narrator in Maidenhair, legal scribe and calligraphy teacher Evgeny hears harrowing stories every day and transmutes them into art. The most recent piece in the book, "Nabokov's Inkblot" written in 2013, is an accessible tale of money, culture and compromise. Along with stories, in Shishkin's characteristically dense and allusive prose, there are autobiographical fragments, like "The Half-Belt Overcoat", which revisits his mother's death and the process of writing The Taking of Izmail, due out in English next year. The volume ends with the breathtakingly brilliant essay on language, "In a Boat Scratched on a Wall", where the author argues for the redemptive power of literature, "a link between two worlds."
Cynsations--"a source for conversations, publishing information, writer resources & inspiration, bookseller-librarian-teacher appreciation, children's-YA book news & author outreach"--has interviewed me about my recent foray into YA lit: Playing a Part, by Daria Wilke.
This novel spotlights traditional puppets, especially the Jester in a version of Cinderella. Is the lexicon of puppets embedded in everyday Russian, or did you have to learn from scratch about gesso and leg yokes, ruches and chiton, controllers and crossbars?
I knew nothing about the technical aspect of puppets when I began this project, but that's one of the perks of being a translator: the research required to make a translation correct and complete. It's easy to get (happily) lost learning about a new field. I read books about puppetmaking and consulted with puppeteers. I did extensive Internet image searches. There are books that require no research at all, but they're very rare.
A very good day.
First, my Anna Karenina got shortlisted for ALTA's National Translation Award,
And then, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize.
Possibly not in that order.
In 2001, I translated a couple of essays by Alexievich for Autodafé: The Journal of the International Parliament of Writers: "Go Where You Shouldn't" and "Enquêtes sur l'amour en Russie (Inquiries into Love in Russia)," and in 2005, Words Without Borders published my translation of a story of hers, "The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt," which you can read here.
This year, PEN America asked me and several other PEN members to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matters most to us. This is PEN's way of taking part in the American Library Association's annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
My choice was Daria Wilke's Playing a Part, a young adult novel (which I translated and which came out this year from Arthur A. Levine Books) that addresses Russian censorship around LGBT themes:
In Daria Wilke's young adult novel Playing a Part, young Grisha is happy at home with his actor parents in a Moscow puppet theater, but he is young and trying to sort out the whole identity—especially gender identity—thing. He's harassed not only by school bullies but even by his grandfather, who doesn't think he's macho enough. Meanwhile another actor, Sam, who is Grisha's mentor and friend, is leaving Russia for the Netherlands because he's gay and can't endure the daily harassment being gay brings upon him.
I describe the book in this way because of its publication in Russia, where homosexuality was criminalized throughout the Soviet period and, in the last few years, criminalized anew. The fact of Russian censorship of "gay propaganda" has shaped my presentation and made this thoughtful and engaging novel also political.
For the rest of the article, click here.
"The Russian expats who inhabit these stories aren't given a lot of time to nurse their wounds between the revolution back home and the impending world war in their adopted city of Paris. And Berberova's graceful but merciless portraits—of fading countesses, dreary bohemians, former elites now busing tables and cleaning floors, all clinging if only barely to their memories (or fantasies) of a fancier life—had me aching right along with them. One heroine, Sasha, wakes up from a dream with "a strange aftertaste, a mysterious knot that weighs on me to this very day"—words I could easily steal here to describe the spell Berberova casts with each story in this collection."
First published by Knopf, it's currently in available in paperback from New Directions.