On Behalf of Pushkin's Narrator
Toward the end of the 1990s it seemed that, despite the existence in Russia of various independent (non-state) literary prizes (the Russian “Booker,” to which the words “Open Russia” have now also been added; the Debut Prize, the Yury Kazakov Prize for the best short story of the year; the Tapfer Pushkin Prize; the Zhukovsky Prize; the Alexander Blok Prize; the Boris Pasternak Prize; and in addition the yearly prizes each of the “thick” literary journals awards) there was still no prize that would encourage the most Russian genre in Russian prose, the novella [povest']. And yet history shows that secular Russian prose originated and became established specifically in the genre of the novella. The list can begin with Karamzin's “Poor Liza,” continue with Pushkin's five “Tales of Belkin,” followed by Gogol's novellas (the famous “Nose,” “Overcoat,” “Portrait,” and “Nevsky Prospect” that followed his “Tales of Rudy Panko”); the list continues with Dostoevsky's “Double,” “The Landlady,” and “White Nights,” Turgenev's “First Love” and “Asya, “ Chekhov's “Duel” and “Lady with the Little Dog,” and Tolstoy's “Hadji Murat.” In the twentieth century the novella underwent the ordeal of socialist realism and survived. Now, when the novel is vanishing into mass literature the novella still claims the attention of the reader of serious literature-in particular of the literature appearing in well-known journals. It is difficult to find a single issue of Znamia, Novyi mir, Oktiabr, and other journals which does not contain a new novella-compact, dynamic, full of content, character and plot (one also encounters “non-fiction” novellas).
Novellas are generated by the circumstances of writing at the present moment: I need only mention Vladimir Pelevin's “Yellow Arrow” (Zhetlaia strela), the novellas of Vladimir Makanin (”Escape Hatch” [Laz]), “Where the Sky Met the Hills” [Gde skhodilos' nebo s kholmami] and others) and Liudmila Petrushevskaya (”Our Circle” [Nash krug], “The Time of Night”). Today's prose writers (and their editors) are looking for new generic designations, keeping their distance from the definition of novella; thus the new texts of Asar Eppel and Mikhail Aizenberg are called “narrations.”
Aside from that, we should keep in mind that the novella as a genre in Old Russian Literature (11th-17th centuries) combined various types of narrative works, and the appearance of the novella is indissolubly linked with the appearance and development of Russian literature in principle.
Given all these facts it is worth pondering how the novella in particular provided one of the significant factors in forming the identity of Russian literature-in its origins, its growth, and its day-to-day existence.
The Ivan Petrovich Belkin Literary Prize was conceived and realized as an annual award for the best novella of the year.
Both the idea for a prize for the novella of the year and its name come from the author of these lines. The backers of the prize are two: one of the largest of today's Russian publishing firms, EKSMO, for whom I have worked and continue to work as a compiler, commentator reviewer and author of introductions to books by contemporary Russian writers; and the journal Znamia, where I work as the deputy chief editor and where I publish many of my own articles examining the current literary situation and its social context. As a literary critic and editor I set out the idea behind this prize and made a proposal to a large publishing house that, along with other publishing giants, has been profiting by publishing mass culture (EKSMO remains the home of the best known authors of detective fiction, Aleksandra Marinina and Darya Dontsova). At the beginning of the twenty-first century EKSMO suddenly gave thought to its reputation and began undertaking projects that were not at all connected with profits (the series “Contemporary Prose,” for example). The publisher agreed with my proposal, given that, along with a yearly literary celebration whose invited guests include major literary figures, it also acquired expert assessments of the state of contemporary literature, assessments that can help it formulate its own plans for the future. And I became the coordinator of this newly-established prize.
So the idea found support, and five thousand dollars was allotted by the publisher for the best novella, along with five hundred dollars for each of the five stories-the same number as the tales of Belkin-that make it to the short list. In putting together the jury (five persons) we proceed from the idea that there should be a representative of Znamia, a “nonaligned” literary critic, along with independent literary figures representing prose, poetry and essays. The first jury includes Fazil Iskander (the chairman), Boris Dubin, Alla Latynina, Sergei Chuprinin and Sergei Yursky.
Each year novellas published over the previous twelve months can be nominated for the Belkin Prize by the deadline of December 25. Periodicals, creative organizations and literary critics have the right of nomination.
There was a vigorous response from the press to the establishment of the prize: the newspapers Izvestiia, Kommersant, Vremia novostei, Vremia MN, Literaturnaia gazeta, and the radio stations Maiak, Radio Rossii, and Ekho Moskvy all published comment after the press conference announcing the birth of the new prize.
Thirty-four novellas were put forward for the first award, for the year 2001.
- Sergei Babaian: “Bez vozvrata,” Kontinent, 108;
- Irina Bezladnova: “Takaia zhenshchina,” Zvezda, 4;
- Pavel Bykov: “Boks,” Vestnik Litinstituta (spetsvypusk);
- Mikhail Veller: “Belyi oslik,” Oktiabr', 4;
- Andrei Gelasimov: “Foks Madler pokhozh na svin'iu,” Proekt OGI;
- Aleksei Gelein: “Prekrasnaia dama odinokogo maiora,” Kol'tso A, 18;
- Aleksandr Gorianin: “Gruz,” Zvezda, 1;
- Faina Grimberg: “Mavka,” Znamia, 10;
- Maksim Gureev: “Brat Kaina-Avel',” Oktiabr', 5;
- Andrei Dmitriev: “Doroga obratno,” Znamia, 1;
- Iurii Ekishev: “Deistviia angelov,” Kontinent, 110;
- Aleksei Zikmund: “Gerbert,” Novyi mir, 7;
- Rustam Ibragimbekov: “Khram vozdukha,” Druzhba narodov, 8;
- Aleksandr Kabakov: “Pozdnii gost', Znamia, 3;
- Arkan Kariv: “Perevodchik,” Druzhba narodov, 6;
- Viktor Konetskii: “Stolknovenie v prolive Aktiv Pass,” Neva, 1;
- Vladimir Kurnosenko: “Svet tikhii,” Druzhba narodov, 4;
- Anna Matveeva: “Pereval Diatlova,” Ural, 12 (2000); 1 (2001);
- Viktor Mel'nikov: “Muzeiiu trebuetsia ekskursovod,” Kolomenskii al'manakh, 5;
- Oleg Pavlov: “V bezbozhnikh pereulkakh,” Oktiabr', 1;
- Oleg Pavlov: “Karagandinskie deviatiny, ili Povest' polsednikh let,” Oktiabr', 8;
- Aleksandr Rogozhkin: “Dom, ili Den' pominoveniia,” Iskusstvo kino, 9-10;
- Mariia Rybakova, “Pannoniia,” Zvezda, 11;
- Margarita Safina, “Gospodi, ne brosaj menia v ternovyi kust,” Idel', 9;
- Feliks Svetov: “Chizhik-pyzhik,” Znamia, 11;
- Roman Senchin: “Minus,” Znamia, 8;
- Ol'ga Slavnikova: “Bessmertnyi,” Oktiabr', 6;
- Mikhail Tarkovskii: “Gostinitsa 'Okean',” Novyi mir, 5;
- Aleksandr Titov: Zhizn', kotoroi ne bylo,” Novyi mir, 8;
- Elena Kholmogorova: Sirotskaia zima,” Kontinent, 108;
- Svetlana Shipunova: “Malen'kie semeinye istorii,” Znamia, 6;
- Viktor Shirokov: “Vavilonskaia iama,” Nasha ulitsa, 7;
- Vladimir Shpakov: Slushaiushchii zemliu,” Neva, 10;
- Galina Shchekina: “Grafomanka,” Mezon, 11.
What emerges from an analysis of this list?
1. The journals: In terms of the quantity of those nominated (by different critics!) the leader is Znamia, with six novellas (A. Grimberg, A. Dmitriev, A. Kabakov, F. Svetov, R. Senchin, S. Shipunova). Next is Oktiabr' (M. Veller, M. Gureev, O. Pavlov-twice, for different stories, in issue nos. 1 and 8). Druzhba narodov has four nominees (R. Ibragimbekov, A. Kariv, V. Kurnosenko, R. Senchin-who also was nominated for his story in Znamia). Zvezda has three (I. Bezladnova, A. Gorianin, M. Rybakova), as do both Novyi mir (A. Zikmund, M. Tarkovsky, A. Titov) and Kontinent (S. Babaian, Iu. Ekishev, E. Kholmogorova). Neva has two (V. Konetsky, V. Shpakov). It's significant that works appearing in provincial publications (Ural, Kolomenskii al'manakh, Idel', Mezon) were also nominated. Non-mainstream publications (Nasha ulitsa) were also represented. Almost all the stories were of high quality, so that the jury's task of selection was a very difficult one.
2. Generations: the age spread from twenty-five to seventy-plus included writers of advanced years (F. Svetov, V. Konetsky), the elderly (R. Ibragimbekov), the middle-aged (the majority), and the new generation of Russian prose writers (the young A. Matveeva, M. Rybakova and R. Senchin).
3. The preliminary assessment of the critics: with only a few exceptions, all the stories were discussed in the newspapers before their nomination for the prize, and many of them received positive reviews. (Although that does not mean that a few stories were not of high quality).
4. Stylistic trends: the stories use the different traditions of Russian literature (”gloomy” prose; the catastrophic in O. Pavlov, R. Senchin and O. Slavnikova). One finds also playful prose and post-modernism, but the novella tends most toward serious ideas and metaphysical problems.
Something unexpected was the jury's decision to include in its short list not five but six novellas. When they announced their list in the Oval Hall of the Library of Foreign Literature the members of the jury jokingly called their decision the “Belkin-plus,” justifying it by the fact that Mikhail Zoshchenko, as we know, expanded Pushkin's work with his stylized novella “Talisman,” which he called “the sixth tale of Belkin.”
The short list comprised Sergei Babaian's “Bez vozvrata”; Andrei Gelasimov's “Foks Madler pokhozh na svin'iu”; Faina Grimberg's “Mavka”; Andrei Dmitriev's “Doroga obratno”; Anna Matveva's “Pereval Diatlova”; and Olga Slavnikova's “Bessmertnyi.”
The literary community, whose “prize season” reaches its peak toward the end of winter, declared Andrei Dmitriev and Olga Slavnikova its favorites (both these authors, incidentally, were finalists in the Apollon Girgoriev Prize established by the Academy of Critics (ARSS), of which I served as president from 1999 to 2001). But in its final decision the jury surprised everyone by selecting Sergei Babaian, a regular contributor to Kontinent and someone to whom literary critics and journalists have paid much attention. Newspapers labeled the decision “strangely unexpected”: “The prose writer Sergei Babaian, an admired, regular author in Kontinent and one not spoiled by the attention of critics, has written a worthy and readable novella ... contemporary in manner, traditional (although not imitative!) in style.... The decision, which secured the author a place in the prestigious short list and focused attention on his work, was seen as quite warranted. Yet no one imagined that he would emerge the winner of the prize.
The announcement of the winner took place in the presence of all the finalists, along with a large group of invited guests-literary figures and journalists-in the atrium of the Pushkin State Museum of Art. The jury had convened there, and its discussions went on for about two hours. Before the jury president announced the name of the winner, each of the finalists gave a speech-essay (the speeches were published in Znamia, no. 6, 2002). Each author was asked to comment on Ivan Petrovich Belkin and, insofar as possible, to speak on the novella as a genre.
The Ivan Petrovich Belkin Prize continues: this year the jury is headed by the prose writer, dramatist and screen writer Leonid Zorin; its members include Elena Khologorova (Executive Secretary of Znamia), screen writer, poet and prose writer Yury Arabov, acting editor-in-chief of the review Ex Libris of the newspaper Nezavisimaia gazeta, Vladimir Berezin, and the director of the Russian-French Centre for the Study of the Humanities, Aleksei Berelovich. The following novellas have been nominated:
- Nikolai Bokov: “Obrashchenie, ili metanoiia,” Novyi zhurnal, 227-228;
- Marina Vishnevetskaia: “Iz knigi Opyty,” Znamia, 11;
- Anatolii Gavrilov: “Berlinskaia fleita,” Oktiabr', 2;
- Ekaterina Gaevskaia: “Khronika moei zhizni,” Russkaia provintsiia, 3;
- Mariia Galina: “Pokryvalo dlia Avaddona,” Izd-vo “Tekst”;
- Sergei Gandlevskii: “NRZB,” Znamia, 1;
- Andrei Gelasimov: “Zazhda,” Oktiabr', 5;
- Yurii Goriukhin: “Vstrechnoe dvizhenie,” Bel'skie prostory, 7;
- Vladimir Kantor: “Zapiski iz polumertvogo doma,” Oktiabr', 9;
- Tat'iana Kasatkina: “Kopiia,” Al'manakh Nasekomoe;
- Elena Klepikova: “Ochen' zhal',” from the book Nevynosimyi Nabokov;
- Elena Klepikova: “Otsrochka kazni,” from the book Nevynosimyi Nabokov;
- Elena Klepikova: Nevynosimyi Nabokov, Izd-vo “Drugie berega”;
- Yurii Korotkov, Valery Todorovsky: “Podvig,” “Izd-vo Palmyra”;
- Il'ia Kochergin: “Pomoshchnik kitaitsa,” Znamia, 11;
- Yurii Maletskii: “Kopchenoe pivo,” Vestnik Evropy, 3;
- Afanasii Mamedov, Isaak Milkin: “Samomu sebe,” Oktiabr', 3;
- Sergei Mironov, “Obkhodchik putei,” Izdatel'skoe sodruzhestvo A. Bogatykh and E. Rakitskaia “ERA”;
- Valerii Mukhariamov: “Trudnoe schast'e Bor'ki Fil'kinshteina,” Kontinent, 111;
- Yurii Petkevich: Koleso obozreniia, Izd-vo “Nezavisimaia gazeta”;
- Valerii Popov: “Ocharovatel'noe zakholust'e,” Novyi mir, 1;
- Sergei Roi: “Zakon taigi,” Izdatel'skii dom “Moskovskie novosti”;
- Roman Senchin: “Nubuk,” Novyi mir, 11-12;
- Dar'ia Simonova: “Shankr,” Izd-vo “Vagrius”;
- Vladimir Sotnikov: “Okhotnik,” Kontinent, 113;
- Oleg Tiulkin (Oleg XXX): Odinokii volk, Izd-vo “Limbus Press”;
- Nikolai Shadrin: “Nadezhda-zhizn',” Izd-vo “Palmyra”;
- Viktor Shirokov: “Dom bluzhdanii, ili dar bozhestvennoi smerti,” Iunost', 4.
- Marina Vishnevetskaia: “Iz knigi Opyty,” Znamia, 11.
- Asar Eppel': “Kastrirovat' kastriul'tsa,” Znamia, 10.
We await the decision of the jury which, over the New Year's holidays, will have to brush up on its knowledge of contemporary Russian prose*.
Independent literary prizes in Russia today (and there are several hundred of them) serve as organizers of the literary process and as markers of literary territory-functions that were carried out in a distorted fashion by the Union of Soviet Writers as well as by the system of Stalin, Lenin, and State Prizes. In the absence of the latter-due to their being abolished, changed or discredited-independent literary prizes, even with all the various inequities involved in their award, have filled this gap. Literary prizes play one more role of no small importance: in a country where, in comparison with the recent past, the role of literature has changed so markedly (diminished, or disappeared altogether) and the status of the writer has fallen so much, the prizes remind the public of the very existence of literature even, as now, by measuring it in monetary units (sometimes in a rather sizeable sum of those monetary units); the reassert the prestige of literature, by transforming the award of prizes into a kind of spectacle. Prizes, an appealing, topical event for the media, also represent significant material support for at least a few writers working in conditions where royalties for serious literature are tiny. For the public a prize is the discovery of a new, fresh name, a functioning “factory for stars.” Unfortunately, our prizes generally still have, overall, a very limited influence on sales figures and the size of print runs of books. The country that in the recent past led the world in reading now, if it reads at all, reads detective stories; and if it does get utterly absorbed in a book, then it's only in some trashy romance novel (a “loveburger,” as we say). Neither Marinina nor Dontsova needs prizes. Those who do need them are the writers who, the further the advance, the further they leave behind a public dedicated to pulp fiction. And that same public needs them as well, for tomorrow will inevitably follow today, and if a middle class really does develop in Russia, then these “middlin' sort of folks,” as they used to be called in Russia, will likely be interested enough to pick up one of these books that has just been awarded a prize. And in the meantime the writer awarded a prize is part of some real literary excitement, the fellowship of the awarders and the awarded. Journalists, editors, and publisher take note of him. We should give thanks to the prizes-including the Ivan Petrovich Belkin Prize-at least for that.
© Natal'ia Ivanova