Firstly, I’d like to introduce you short story anthologies published by Glas. Starting with these books is the best way to sample fiction of various authors before trying their novels. A Will and A Way, Nine and Women’s View are three collections by Russia’s top female writers, including Rubina, Muravieva, Petrushevskaya and Ulitskaya. Russian Drama presents works by four emerging Russian female playwrights, while Still Waters Run Deep features stories by women in their 20s and 30s. War and Peace is a gender juxtaposition anthology, focusing on Russian life after perestroika. In the War, the male authors present their stories about the Russian army and the Chechen War, while Julia Latynina exposes corruption in the Russian Caucasus. In Peace, five female authors contribute stories of everyday life, with love, children and family being central themes here.
An Armenian-born Muscovite Nina Gabrielyan has written stories that are full of tragic surrealism that is presented to the reader, as if in compensation, through vivid and juicy prose. In the Master of the Grass, a short story collection, Gabrielyan explores loneliness and solitude, and fears, dreams and obsessions that are associated with them. Each of the stories has a different plot and characters: a narcissistic man, an Elderly Armenian couple’s memories of their tragic past, a lonely woman speaking with her flat. The uniting theme and atmosphere connects all of these stories into one reality.Dina Rubina, a Russian-Israeli author born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, has captured hearts of Russian readers with her bright, colorful like the Istanbul grand bazaar, writing style. Rubina is a self-critic; she once said that she lives in a state of a permanent ‘creative crisis’. In my opinion, this is a sign of the never-ending writer’s growth. Several of her books have been adapted for screen. Although female protagonists and women’s life are often central to her fiction, in novels like Leonardo’s Handwriting or On the Sunny Side of the Street, her most known novel translated into English remains the award-winning Here Comes the Messiah, set in the modern-day Israel. The focus here is not political, but human. The book is satirical and surreal; as an outsider who came to live in Israel in mature age, Rubina had the required distanced viewpoint to portray the absurdities of life on the West Bank.
On Upper Maslovka is a signature work of women’s prose from Rubina. Anna Borisovna is an 87-year-old yet vigorous woman with a stingy, sarcastic tongue, who used to be a famous sculptor, ‘the old woman is rude as a drunk pathologist’. Peter is a young theatre director, failing to make it big in the art world. Their creativity brought the two together, but their love is far from platonic. A case of people falling in love despite being generations apart from each other is not uncommon. Here it is complicated by Peter’s unfulfilled ambitions and the intellectual class occupational hazards of the characters, such as cynicism and existential angst. Rubina’s works are available in many languages, including Polish, German, Hungarian and French.
The theme of love and creativity is also explored in Maria Stepnova’s book, The Women of Lazarus, which follows the life and three loves of Lazarus Lindt, a genius nuclear physicist. It starts straight after the Russian revolution, in 1918. Lazarus is like a son to a childless couple, Marusya and Sergei Chaldonov. Yet he loves Marusya like a man, with a secret love, of which she’s not aware. When he becomes a famous scientist Lazarus falls for young Galina, and yet again it’s a love that is not meant to be. Sometimes, there can only be one love that occupies a man’s heart. Lazarus’s devoted to science but the fate gives him a gift, reincarnating Lazarus’s genius in his granddaughter Lidochka. A French and a German translations of this award-winning novel are out now.
Ludmila Ulitskaya is one the most well-known modern Russian authors focused on the Soviet Period and family life. Many of Ulitskaya’s protagonists are women. In Sonechka, an innocent librarian girl falls in love with a man who becomes her husband, and her love as pure in most romantic books she’s been reading, devoid of egoism. The reality may be grey, but Sonechka lives in the bright world of words. May be it’s not a silly escapism, as the reality we live in, we create ourselves. Another novel by Ulitskaya, Medea and Her Children, is set in Crimea. Medea is an old childless woman and yet a head of a big family, patching up harmony within it with her love and wisdom.
Another modern Titan of Russian women’s prose is Irina Muravieva. Her books often contain parallel plots, rhythmic prose, synesthesia and spirituality. Two of Muravieva’s novels have been translated into French. Le Journal Intime de Natalia (Natalia’s Diary) is a sad story of solitude of an abandoned and impoverished woman, whose only loyal friend is her old dog. Portrait de Bindo Altoviti (Altoviti’s Portrait) is a story of an ex-pat family that moved from New York to Moscow: a mother and a daughter, love and suffering, love and death, and a new Christ. The novel has Muravieva’s inherently poetic, melodic language, well suited to balance the overwhelming emotions of its characters with a philosophical tone.
A celebrated St Petersburg author Yelena Chizhova has won the Russian Booker in 2009 with her novel, The Time of Women, recently translated into English and German. Antonina, a female worker from the province, comes to conquer Piter (the Russian nickname for St Petersburg), but there she is seduced by a handsome man, gets pregnant and eventually dies, leaving his daughter for upbringing to three grannies, neighbors in the communal flat. Antonina’s baby girl Suzanna grows up, becoming an artist, and along with her story we learn about lives of her ‘mothers’ who survived the Revolution, the WWII, the blockade and Stalinism.
Probably the most scandalous book written about Russian women is… not Nabokov’s Lolita (who was not Russian). It is Victor Erofeyev’s Russian Beauty. The novel was written in the early 1980s, but it was published a decade later and quickly found international fame, having been translating into over twenty languages. In this story, after a failed marriage, a young bisexual woman, Irina Tarakanova, comes from the province to Moscow to work as a fashion model. She is a prostitute, who used to be repeatedly raped by her father as a child. Irina likes perverse sex and has many lovers. After a scandalous pornographic photo-session, Irina loses her job and decides that her life in Russia is awful. She performs exorcist acts, running naked in the wild and getting very sick. Not to give any more spoilers, I’ll just say that things spiral out of control, with the story ending in the most decadent way. I ask myself this question over and over again: why the world is so much fascinated with postmodern horror stories coming from Russia? Is this Russian girl an allegory of the country itself plagued by wars and revolutions, raped by Bolsheviks and Stalinism, exorcised by propaganda and given a hope of a glorious afterlife by its Church? Beauty may have an ugly side.
Finally, I would like to mention Anna Babyashkina’s speculative fiction novel Before I Croack that won the Debut Prize in 2011. Set in the near-future Russia in 2039, where people are still using social networks like Facebook and Live Journal, the story focuses on ambitious pensioner Sonya who was sent by his son to a retirement home, The Mounds. Sonya finds similar minded contemporaries who have grand ambitions to write the next Great Russian novel. The author called her book a letter to our generation from the future. Maybe it was meant to show uselessness of our urban generation, spending life on the Internet, and our not-so-bright future, which reminds us the present. Is this a hint on another Zastoi taking over our society (a Soviet era of Stagnation under Brezhnev’s rule 1964-1982)? Or is it simply a seasonal hibernation? At least once a century, the overbearing Russian bear (alliteration intended) needs his sleep.
P.S. This was a chapter excerpt from my upcoming guide on modern Russian literature. I’m still doing final edits of it, please bear with me, I’ll release it very soon.
More on Russian women’s prose here: Women conquer Russia’s literary Olympus
I’m delighted to announce that on Christmas Eve, a Chinese translation of my novel, Mr Right & Mr Wrong, was published as an ebook by Douban Read.
update: The Reader’s Mini Guide to Modern Russian Books is out now on Amazon Kindle/paperback here.