International Women’s Day and some women writers I admire

International Women’s Day and some women writers I admire

For some reason (possibly because I’m very lucky or because I have the habit of ignoring the world around me), I get surprised when men say sexist stuff to me about my work. I was in a Moscow bar recently on a dark and stormy night, and a typical twatty overpaid British expat man of the sort that should be displayed at the zoo with a plaque reading Typical Twatty Overpaid British Expat Man told me it must be “quite nice” to have “such a fashionable hobby” as writing plays – with zero irony, of course, because I must be a bored rich girl (ahahahaha) who must go through a phase of thinking she’s the next Beckett before moving on to pottery or adult coloring books or whatever it is that bored rich girls do. Oh, and he “used to have a girlfriend who wrote plays” but “she’s in marketing now.” I do hope that “in marketing now” is a euphemism for “slept with his best friend.”

Anyway, although sexism with regard to women writers surprises me every time, and although I rarely pay attention to whether or not the author I’m reading is a woman, it must be said that not everyone thinks like me. So here’s a list of some of my favorite female writers, and their books and plays, because it’s IWD, and because whatever. They are great not because they are written by women. They are great because they are great.  Continue reading “International Women’s Day and some women writers I admire”

My Christmas present to you all: two short translations from Alexei Ivanov and Vyacheslav Kondratyev

Ivanov and Kondratyev are two Russian writers that you probably haven’t heard of (unless you read Russian, of course).

“When Volodka the Lieutenant got up into the back of the tram, everyone recoiled from him. Understanding why, he immediately grew furious and turned against the public.

There was, actually, one woman who got up and offered him her seat.

– Sit down, army comrade… – He looked at her with such dead eyes that she flinched and muttered to herself – My God, and he’s so young…

Muscovites rarely saw men like him – straight from the front lines, processed and minced by the war, in bloody coats with bullet holes, in boots covered with burns and month-old mud. And so they gazed at Volodka. They gazed at him with sympathy. Some older women grew teary-eyed, but he was annoyed by this – what the hell were they staring at? Yeah, he wasn’t exactly coming home from a resort. Perhaps they thought that war was like what they saw in the movies. The men irritated him especially – clean-shaven, with their little ties.

When he took the seat that the woman had given up for him, the people nearby drew away from him, which added to his irritation – oh, so he was a bit dirty, huh? He sat, biting his lips and not looking at anyone, until he felt so utterly uncomfortable – it wasn’t as if he dreamed of coming back to Moscow like this – that he tore at the collar of his coat, exposing his brand spanking new For Courageous Service medal. Here you go, check it out! You noticed the dirt and the blood, but paid zero attention to the medal! Getting up quickly, he walked away from the seats, pushing a well-dressed man with a briefcase in a move that wasn’t entirely accidental.” – Vyacheslav Kondratyev, “Convalescent Leave.”

“There were so many stars in the sky that it seemed as though one could not take a step up there without hearing them crunch underfoot. Although, apparently, no one walked there, because it was so quiet that one could hear how tomorrow’s waves were gathering in the river deep, how the moonlight rustled as it softly settled down upon the earth, how Tata’s little heart beat beneath the warm blankets, how metal corroded with a crackle, how the spring grinned as it strode tirelessly from afar, how the wind ruffled the weightless feathers on the wings of dreams, how the tears that would not be wept ripened in the soul, how a wave lightly rocked the boat which was not, after all, untethered from the dock, how it rhythmically rocked that boat – from the bow to the stern, from the bow to the stern, from the bow to the stern…” – Alexei Ivanov, “The Geographer Drank His Globe Away.”

Kondratyev served in WWII, engaging in heavy combat by Rzhev in what was a horrible, horrible time for Soviet troops. He was wounded, he got a medal for courage, he got time off, was wounded again – spending six months in the hospital – got a disability discharge. He began getting published when he was already in his late 40’s.

Kondratyev shot himself in 1993. He was very ill. Like many of his fellow citizens, he was also impoverished. And, according to at least some of his friends, he was dismayed and disgusted by what was happening to Russia.

Alexei Ivanov was born in 1969, in Perm, in the Urals. A lot of people (many of them people I quite like) say he captured the “indistinct hero” of the 1990s. “The Geographer Drank His Globe Away,” which is set in Perm, was recently made into an excellent film starring Konstantin Khabensky.

I took liberties with the Kondratyev’s translation – in terms of purging the ellipses he was fond of, and making it more colloquial-sounding in modern English (it’s pretty colloquial in Russian – and while some of the language is dated, a lot of it is still the kind of language you can hear in the streets).

I take a lot of liberties with translations.

(I take a lot of liberties in general.)

Incidentally, it’s my opinion that anyone who wants to at least try to understand Russian masculinity ought to begin their journey by reading Kondratyev and Ivanov. Sadly, these two haven’t been translated into English. (This, of course, can only mean one thing – someone really ought to give me a grant. We can call it the “Understanding Russian Masculinity” grant. We won’t be dealing with an exact science, but who cares about that, right?)

There is a very particular, bittersweet joy in reading and translating these two. And that’s my gift to you guys. Merry Christmas.

dance baby dance

“The Goldfinch”: stars are beautiful because of the space between them

“…You are not mad, or wild, or grieving! You are not roaring out to choke her with your bare hands! Which means your soul is not too mixed up with hers. And that is good. Here is my experience. Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you. What you want to live and be happy in the world is a woman who has her own life and lets you have yours.” – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

Boris, the Tweedledee to the protagonist’s Tweedledum, kind of has a point. Loving someone or someone too much usually comes with a host of unpleasant consequences. So it’s probably a bad thing, this love I have for The Goldfinch. A bad thing – and an irresistible thing.

Like most people, I first fell in love with Donna Tartt’s writing when I read “The Secret History,” a voluptuous, gorgeous, improbable novel. Unlike most people, I didn’t howl with rage at her unexpected follow-up, “The Little Friend.” It was an unsatisfying, brutal sort of book, but I respected what the author was trying to do with it. Living in Russia these last few years, I have gained new appreciation for “The Little Friend,” because of the idea that life is weird and abrupt, and not all sad stories have a resolution, and not all ends can be seen.

The one genuine complaint I had about “The Little Friend” was the recurring feeling that the author was firmly keeping her characters at an arm’s length, never inhabiting them fully. That kind of clinical approach worked well for Nabokov in his later years, but when it comes to a literary mystery, it makes the reader feel a little cheated. “The Little Friend” is a fine example of masterful prose that’s also a little too cold and shiny and, therefore, ultimately a bit lifeless.

So when the months of anticipation were finally over and “The Goldfinch” had arrived, I kept wondering, as I read, when Tartt might smack me over the head again. I steeled myself. I made copious notes as I read – waiting for the inevitable emotional letdown.

And then, of course, the sublime happened and kept happening.

Donna Tartt is one of the most important writers of our time, and important writers are always more than just skilled and precise. Their great works are always just a little crazy – all of that over-quoted stuff about Nietzsche’s internal chaos giving birth to a “dancing star” is no less true for being featured in too many Facebook profiles. And “The Goldfinch” is a deliciously mad, courageous sort of work.

Tartt’s prose still has that glinting edge to it. She hasn’t lost the hoodoo or the sarcasm. But “The Goldfinch” also covers great expanses – of joy, sorrow, the geography of the world and human love and longing – and does so fearlessly and with the kind of abandon that is reminiscent of the brush-strokes of its celebrated namesake, painted by Carel Fabritius shortly before his death at 32.

Out of all the motifs running through the book, one of my favorites (and one that I haven’t really seen many critics mention), is the repeated comparisons made between protagonist Theo Decker and Harry Potter, otherwise known as The Boy Who Lived. “The Goldfinch” is far from a fantasy – but in its references to Harry Potter, it recognizes the human need for the magical and fantastic, for what Kate Atkinson calls “the golden mountain, the fire-breathing dragon, the happy ending,” at the end of her own modern masterpiece, “Human Croquet.”

The magical in this instance is art, both high art in the traditional sense and the art of what Theo refers to as “beautiful things” (and is there really that much of a difference? The book seems to suggest that no, there isn’t). While nobody comes along to usher Theo into a parallel, Hogwarts-like universe – there is this perfectly articulated sense of the inevitability of being forced to step sideways out of one’s own existence, into a dimension that’s darker and stranger. Tartt’s instruments here are painful and powerful, and her ultimate scope is astonishing. I have the sense I’ll be thinking about this book for a decade (and won’t stop thinking about it when, hopefully, the next Tartt book arrives).

A lot of good novels are like monuments. The best ones are like old houses – humming with internal energy, lit up from the inside. “The Goldfinch” is one of those – the place you want to stay for a long time, and not because you’re escaping from anything. Within “The Goldfinch” you’re always moving toward some understanding, trying to bridge some distance. Like a great painting would, the book bends time – reaching out and addressing the reader. And it makes you feel as though these words are meant for you alone.

Anna Arutunyan does a liberal translation of Alexander Vvedensky

This is an excerpt from the “Guest on a Horse” poem:

Sleek and simple was the stallion
As transparent as a stream.
Long of mare and hurried temper,
Said that he would like some cream.
“I’m the chairman of this meeting!
Come to join you and parley.
Teach me what to do, Creator!”
God replied to him, “Okay.”
Then the stallion took a stand
And I looked into his hand.
He wasn’t frightening!
And I realized then, I sinned.
God had taken from me matter:
Body, consciousness and will.
Everything came back to me.
In the boiling pot was winter;
In the stream a prison’s chill.
In the flower there was sickness.
In the june bug – strife, discord.
None of it made sense to me.
Could it be you’re absent, God?

If you read more about who Vvedensky was – and how he ended up – the goosebumps will be more plentiful.

Once again, this is a very liberal translation, but that’s precisely why I like it.

I often wonder where a mind like Vvedensky’s goes after death. You can imagine it to be a kind of mind that doesn’t entirely leave the landscape. I was once walking back from a wedding on a summer night in the Middle of Nowhere, Vladimir region, Russia, and as the tall grass swayed in the breeze on either side of the path, someone said, “The grass is full of dead poets” – and it was the truest thing I’d ever heard about that place.

gena in the grass


My first introduction to Greece happened when I was very young, and reading a rather liberal translation (more like an interpretation) of some Ancient Greek myths. It featured stuff like, “Hera was not classically beautiful, but anyone who had ever tasted the pleasures that fill the curves of a woman’s body appreciated her.” I believed that Greeks know everything there is to know about sex – and may have possibly invented it, in the same fashion that they invented democracy.

In later years, my aunt went to Greece. She came back with tales of aching beauty and introduced me to the saying, “They have everything in Greece.” I would argue that “they don’t have lions.” “You don’t need lions in Greece,” she would retort.

When I grew older, I made friends with Greeks, chief among them the artist Stavros Pavlides, who was in my year at Duke. I have loved few of my male friends with a so-called “pure” love – other things were always getting in the way – but with Stavros, it was always different. Over the years of us being separated by a huge ocean, I should have gotten more casual about it, but I don’t think I have. Some feelings you carry around with you forever, some people you always miss.

I learned that Greece was troubled, political, isolated, welcoming. I heard about the rappers and the cops and the graffiti and the farmers and the Italian mob’s war against the local olive oil. I learned about the forces of light and dark – the ones that almost always came out looking gray in the day.

I went on to marry a man obsessed with Greece for both objective and subjective reasons.

Last year, friends arranged for us to go to Crete. It was there that I really understood that there is no such thing as an “escape,” no matter what the advertisements say.

Now, on this trip to the Peloponnese, that point has been driven home once again. I suppose everyone had that one place that speaks the truth to them – for me, it’s the mountains here, and the sea, and the wind and the silence that exists in its absence. This is not the orderly vacation I was hoping her – and it serves me right, I guess.

It’s also more beautiful than I could have imagined – and I have a pretty wild imagination.

On this trip, I keep talking to the late Reynolds Price in my head. He was my professor at Duke, my introduction to the dining room drama of writers’ lives. I got closer to him when the wonderful Thomas Pfau suggested I work for the English Department at a time when my life had veered dramatically off course and I found myself feeling alone and financially insecure in a way that terrified me. I thought then that it would just be a phase (lol).

Reynolds could be prickly and ridiculous – because he was human – but he also reminded me of who I am, who I really am, I mean. The foundation beneath the rubble, etc. “I take you seriously, you know,” he randomly told me once. “I hope that one of these days, you’ll take yourself seriously too.”

Now I spend my days in conversation. “Isn’t it nice to wake up in an olive grove, Reynolds?” “Don’t you think these fried little fishes are the seafood equivalent of popcorn?” “Hey Reynolds, check out the way the sun is hitting that mountain.” “What do you think about that shadow that belongs to that tree?”

The dead are awfully convenient to talk to, especially since they can’t tell you to shut the fuck up.

It was, meanwhile, Thomas who reminded me of the fact that you have to let yourself be messy while young – travel around, get yourself into stupid situations, let the winds mess you up, that sort of thing. Maybe I’m too old for that, or maybe I’m just getting started. I can’t tell. I guess I can never say that I didn’t listen.

Different threads run through every life, and what gets strung upon them will always surprise you. Time is linear to humans, because that’s all our bodies can bear. I suspected that years ago, I think I know it now.

The Greek landscape speaks to me in Reynolds’ voice, in Auden’s words:

“The nightingales are sobbing in
The orchards of our mothers,
And hearts that we broke long ago
Have long been breaking others;
Tears are round, the sea is deep:
Roll them overboard and sleep.”