Spotlight on Contemporary Russian Fiction
A few weeks ago I did a spotlight on three must-read contemporary female Russian poets, and this time I’m following up with a spotlight on contemporary Russian prose. I’d venture to guess that most of us who study Russian literature are generally presented with the classics: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov. While I love these authors with my whole heart, I’ve continuously found it challenging in the US to figure out who’s active on the contemporary Russian literary scene. Luckily, I’ve had some time to do research here in Petersburg, where there are bookstores galore for any lover of literature. Though mega giants such as Bukvoed are a great place to find a wide selection of classics and literature in translation, I’ve had more luck finding Russian small presses and literary journals at smaller bookstores such as “Fakel,” located in the contemporary art center Loft Etazhi, and “Podpisanye Izdaniya” on Litennii Street. Below I’ll highlight a few of the authors and books I’ve found and enjoyed thus far.
1. Ludmila Ulitskaya
Born in 1943 and a near lifelong Muscovite, Ulitskaya is an internationally acclaimed novelist and short story writer. Though her background is in genetics, Ulitskaya joined the Jewish drama theater as a literary consultant, and went on to publish her first short story in 1990 at the age of 47. Ulitskaya’s work covers a variety a topics, all of which speak to her personal and cultural beliefs. Ulitskaya defines herself as culturally and ethnically Jewish, but has adopted Christianity as her religion, and a lot of her work speaks to the need for reconciliation within different religious communities. She also writes on the female body, the intelligentsia in the soviet era, and everyday life. Her work has been described as largely plot driven and engaging. I found a collection of her short stories at Bukvoed entitled “Девочки” (Girls), and have translated the first few sentences of a story called “Подкидыш” (The Foundling) below.
“Теперешняя наука утверждает, что эмоциональная жизнь человека начинается еще во внутриутробном существовании, и весьма древние источники тоже косвенным образом на это указывают: сыновья Ревекки, как говорит Книга Бытия, еще в материнской утробе стали биться.
Никто и никогда не узнает, в какой именно момент – пренатальной или постнатальной жизни – Виктория впервые испытала раздражение к своей сестре Гаяне.”
“Modern science asserts that human emotional life starts before birth, and very ancient sources indirectly confirm this: the sons of Rebecca, as the Bible says, began to fight in the womb.
We’ll never learn at exactly which moment–in the prenatal or postnatal stage of life–Victoria first felt annoyance towards her sister Ganya.”
2. Dmitry Danilov
Danilov was born in Moscow in 1969, and is the author of several books of prose, most of which deal with various places in Russia. Danilov started his career as a journalist, and his main task was to travel to lesser known cities and write a column about his findings. Because of his background, Danilov might be categorized as a travel writer, but his work truly defies categorization. He fits nicely into the genre of creative nonfiction, a genre that fuses literary techniques with true stories. I found a book of his in “Fakel” called “Двадцать Городов” (Twenty Cities), which Danilov coins as an “attempt at an alternative regional guide.” Essentially, the book is a compilation of essays that Danilov wrote while working at the magazine “Russian Life,” which all describe Danilov’s adventures in lesser traveled Russian cities. As a Russian student, I’ve found this book incredibly engaging not only because of its subject matter, but also because of Danilov’s language, which is at once beautiful and conversational, making it accessible to non-native speakers. Below are the first few sentences of the first essay, entitled “Химгигант с челлицом” (A Chemical Giant with a Human Face):
“Изначально я знал о Новомосковске только одно: там есть огромный химический комбинат. Настолько огромный, что созерцание его видов наносит ощутимый удар по воображению созерцающего. Так говорили знающие люди.
Иногда возникали мысли туда съездить. Тем более, это практически рядом – в Тульской области. Приятно и интересно, когда твое воображение потрясает нечто монструозно-индустриальное.”
“At first I only knew one thing about Novomoskovoe: in the city is a gigantic chemical plant, so gigantic that beholding it leaves a noticeable blow on the imagination of the beholder. Or so I’ve been told by people in the know.
Sometimes I found myself struck by the desire to go there. What’s more, it’s practically next door–in the Tulskaya region. It’s always pleasant and interesting when some sort of monstrous industrial complex shakes up your imagination.”
3. Носорог (Nosorog)
To be fair, this last one isn’t an author, but is instead one of Russia’s best literary journals. For those of you not familiar with literary journals, they generally strive to publish stories, poems, essays, and often art by current and up-and-coming authors. Носорог (or in English, “Rhinoceros,”) was started in 2014 by Katya Morozaya and Igor Gulin, both young writers, and publishes prose, poetry, and philosophy, including works in translation. The issue I purchased, number four, features work by the British artist Lynette Yaidom Boayke, several Russian poets, essayists, and even a piece by the magazine’s founder, Morozaya. Instead of providing an excerpt from the journal, I’ve included several photos of different works. Enjoy!
Hopefully these writers/publications have sparked your interest and you’re running out the door as we speak to support your local independent bookstore. Keep us posted if you find any authors that you particularly like, and keep reading!
Emily, studying Russian at Liden & Denz St. Petersburg