contemporary russian lit / cultural

Composite review: Through the Looking GLAS

10/23/16: This review is a candidate for revision.

After glancing at the title, you may be wondering, what is was GLAS? GLAS was a publishing house – its name derived from the old Russian word for “voice,” – created by Natasha Perova in 1991. Perova says she first discovered contemporary Russian literature and fell in love with it when she was editing Soviet Literature magazine in the late 1980s. “I felt I ought to share this new-found treasure with people from other countries who only knew our 19th-century classics […] There was a huge accumulation of unpublished books known to readers only through unofficial samizdat copies.” [1] GLAS published 75 titles and 170 different authors representing various types of Russian literature before it suspended its activity in 2014, due to falling sales and rising costs.

Around the same time GLAS was declining, my interest in the series was on the rise. My introduction to the GLAS series came through Still Waters Run Deep, the first GLAS book – maybe the first ever book – I checked out of P. Library. After finishing that, I was compelled to read the rest of the series, or at least those books which the library held. For the most part, they were good. It was great to have such a fresh perspective on contemporary Russian literature; generally speaking, most translated contemporary Russian fiction at P. library today are from the popular heavyweights Pelevin, Ulitskaya, Sorokin, Bykov, and the like, while GLAS promotes lesser-known authors. I can say with confidence that I’ve read at least 1/3 of the series at the time of writing. But there’s no reason or drive to critique all of those books on my blog, so instead I’ve made brief summaries and reviews of eleven GLAS books into a composite review. Hopefully these will encourage you to explore the series too. Or at least some of the books; they tend to be a mixed bag.

Mendeleev Rock: Two Short Novels from Debut ★ ★ ★

These two novels by Debut Prize finalists Andrey Kuzechkin and Povel Kostin present typical provincial towns in central Russia and a gallery of modern-day types: radically minded youths, ruthless thugs, drunken intellectuals, the local elite, and failed fortune seekers. The heroes are yearning for faraway glamorous cities and trying to find their identities.

It’s decently written, but I found myself struggling to connect with these often radically-minded youth and their problems.

War & Peace: Contemporary Russian Prose ★ ★ ★

War & Peace is a masterfully translated collection of male and female Russian authors writing on themes of love, loyalty, violence and family. The War section consists of men’s army stories and the Peace section is women’s stories.

This is a dated, but nonetheless interesting window on post-perestroika Russia. I do wish there were more stories included in the “Peace” section, though.

Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess ★ ★

Eh. Twelve Stories chronicles the “hilariously funny” adventures of an American in 1990s Russia. The story doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere in 448 pages and the author’s meta-ness becomes trite after a while.

Still Waters Run Deep: Young Women’s Writing from Russia ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

These frank, unsparing, and varied stories by women in their twenties and thirties reveal the evolution of women’s consciousness in Russia through two decades of violent social upheaval. The contributors are all winners of the Debut prize and include Yaroslava Pulinovich, Olga Rimsha, Irina Bogatereva, Katerina Kuznetsova, Ksenia Zhukova, Anna Lavrivrenko, and Anna Leonidova.

I actually had a lot of fun reading this anthology. Each voice and story is distinct and it is easy to relate in some way to the characters. Highlights for me included Irina Bogatyreva’s Seizure, Victoria Chikarneeva’s I Only Wanted to Live and Anna Lavrinenko’s Tales of the Old Theatre.

Nine of Russia’s Foremost Women Writers ★ ★ ★

Like Still Waters Run Deep, Nine is another collection of Russian women’s prose. A quick run-down of the stories:

Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s absurd middle-aged heroine in “Waterloo Bridge” finds she has fallen in love with a character in a movie. Seeing the film again and again, she experiences the romantic love she never had in real life.

Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “Diana” and “End of the Story” look at women who lie with verve just to escape dreary reality.

Svetlana Alexiyevich, a Belorussian dissident, constructs powerful narrative collages out of “live human voices” culled from her interviews with witnesses to and participants in the most shattering national events.

Olga Slavnikova, a prolific young author from Yekaterinburg, depicts provincial life in a town where most of the men are involved in the illegal mining and cutting of precious stones.

Maria Arbatova’s “My Name is Woman” takes place in an abortion clinic where the heroine reflects on her failed love affair and women’s submissive role in love and life.

Nina Gorlanova sets “Lake Joy” in her native Siberian city of Perm – in the small, closed world of a maternity ward. As a new life is born their suburb is being flooded and they are moved to new homes to start a new life. Anastasia Gosteva takes the reader on an unusual journey around India and America (“Closing Down America”). The heroine’s attempt to run away from herself and an unrequited love is in fact a desperate effort to come to terms with who she really is.

Natalia Smirnova paints a disquieting picture of a provincial town in the Urals where two cultivated women must survive amidst crude working-class surroundings.

All of these stories are well written and skillfully translated (as GLAS-promoted stories are in general), and the book’s enjoyable…for those who are fond of the so-called “women’s prose” and its prevalent themes. I didn’t find many of them interesting, with the exception of Margarita Sharapova’s ComFuture, which juxtaposes circus life with the harsh wide world of today’s Russia.

Yaroslavl Stories ★ ★ ★ ★

Anna Lavrinenko’s Yaroslavl Stories consists of coming-of-age stories set in Yaroslavl, a middle-sized provincial city on the river Volga. They represent a multi-faceted view of how the economic collapse and westernization, including cultural imports from the U.S., have affected the post-Soviet generation living outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. I found the story “Lost and Found” to be interesting in particular.

Before I Croak ★ ★ ★ ★

This first-person memoir by Anna Babiashkina delves into the hidden actions that created the life and circumstances of the protagonists. Spirited narrator Sonya Arkadyevna finds herself surrounded with “dull old ladies” and decides to upset the balance of the group by investigating the women’s lives and finding out what hides behind their demure exterior… And she does – with very unexpected results!

Before I Croak interesting and thought-provoking, biting and painfully honest in places. It’s part mystery, part comedy, and is peppered with witty observations on how selfish and irrational people can be. Even as we age, we still desire to have accomplishments, to get things done or remember things of the past and to do things to continue to live and be loved. I really enjoyed the narrator and her shameless disdain for everyone else, her biting wit, and the vivid way she described her increasingly crazy antics.

Off the Beaten Track: Stories by Russian Hitchhikers ★ ★

A collection of stories about young people who hitchhike across Russia. They have landmass. They have road. They don’t get stuck all day outside of Wawa.

There are three writers at work here: Igor Savelyev, Irina Bogatyreva, and Tatiana Mazepina. I enjoyed the first two stories about traveling the vast expanses of Siberia, but the third story about a journey through Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt was less interesting.

The Little Man: A Novel ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Little Man is a story of social protest, set in an industrial town above the arctic circle. Young Savely accidentally kills a chief mobster, named Coffin. Neither his wife nor the police are willing to protect him, so he flees to the forest to escape the gangsters (as well as a mob of fellow citizens, who are being coerced by the gang) and eventually befriends an indigenous Saami deer-breeding tribe. Transformed, he returns to his town and kills the remaining corrupt leaders. Unfortunately, a new gang quickly replaces the old one. Savely is a sort of Robin Hood in modern Russia, albeit a tragic and twisted one.

Undoubtedly, a dark mood exists throughout the work. It is complemented by vivid imagery and beautiful prose. However, the real merit of The Little Man lies in its willingness to confront, not shy away from the real problems of contemporary Russia, and its ability to expose the darkness in all of its forms. This is probably my favorite GLAS book out of the entire series.

Mission to Mars: A Novel ★ ★ ★

Mission to Mars portrays life, such as it is, for young adult, single Russians living in a provincial city a couple of hours’ flying time east of Moscow, circa 2006-2007. Really, that’s all I can describe about the book.

The group we meet, four young men and two young women, plus a secretary who we barely get to know, come from a range of socioeconomic circumstances. The two young women are not broadly representative, though, one being a poor little rich kid, while the other (not rich) is successful in transferring to Pittsburgh for a part of her university education. We see the living circumstances of the masses in their ill-maintained Stalin- and Brezhnev-era apartment blocks, and of the rich kid in her father’s secure edge-of-city villa. We learn of their ambitions – those likely to be realized mostly being very modest; of the many constraints they face; and the grinding difficulties presented by lack of money, insecure employment, corruption, brutal policing, inadequate hospitals and more. They have dreams and schemes, but their prospects are limited, and their social life centers on movies and drinking too much, usually vodka, or beer fortified with vodka.

Throughout the novel reports of actual airplane crashes interfere matter-of-factly into the narrative, providing a frightening a refrain to the story and symbolically in tune with the characters’ personal moral downfalls. Savelyev’s language consists of energetic short sentences and well-chosen details.

It’s very gloomy, hope you don’t mind that.

Sense ★ ★ ★

In this novel by Arslan Khasavov, SENSE is the name of the organization launched by a narcissistic 20-year-old boy, Artur, who wants to live for the sake of a lofty goal but is unable to fit into any socio-cultural framework. He yearns for glory and finally decides that the only way to win it is to stage a revolution.

Khasavov is a young Kumyk writer who came to Moscow to study Near Asian ethnography and now works as a journalist. As such, he has a very keen eye for relations between the transcaucasian peoples like himself and ethnic Russians. Khasavov peoples his novel with crazy characters who embody many aspects of contemporary Russian young society, yet these characters are never just cardboard stand-ins for general stereotypes but instead very real people.

At the same time, I was annoyed by Artur’s conviction that he knew better than all who have come before about how the the world should be. I felt no empathy towards him or his outlandish, lofty goal. Artur’s overly romantic narration never grew on me. If the book is meant to mock its hero as much as those against whom he pits himself, then it does quite well.

Composite rating: 3 stars.

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